Introspection vs. reflection on experience—S.N.Balagangadhara

In this post, I want to reflect on what it means to think about experience. Perhaps, not so much on what these words mean but what is entailed by (or what happens when we indulge in) this kind of activity. I think the best way to begin this analysis is by asking the following two questions about an activity familiar to most of us: what do we do when we think about ourselves? Do we do it the ‘right’ way? Let me begin with the first question and postpone looking at the second for a later stage, including how we should understand it. Because most of us know how we think about ourselves most of the times, I will take a trivial example and skip over certain explanations and analyses. The holes in my reasoning can either be filled by our memories or by discussing them at a later stage.

 Let us suppose, and it is true by the way, that I lose my temper rather quickly. This makes me say unfortunate things which I regret later on or wish I had not said. Repetitive experiences of such situations make me ‘want’ to control either my temper or control my tongue when I lose my temper. However, my experiences have also taught me that I fail in doing both: infinite self-admonitions do not help; endless number of promises (that I shall not speak when angry or I shall not get angry) does not work. The only result of these efforts is being saddled with a huge sense of remorse, self-directed anger, and an increasing sense of helplessness. I know there is much at stake: I have had fights, hurt people needlessly and messed up relationships, and so on. Yet, nothing, not even a study of books on psychology, seems to help except feed the sense of helpless rage.

 Not many options are open to me: I could hope for a miracle medication (there is medication for attacks of rage but none for short temper) or undergo psychoanalysis. The first is not there yet and, for whatever reason, I do not take the second option. Books in Biology tell me that this anger is the ‘animal’ part of me and that some or another chemical is produced too quickly in the brain. Even if this trait has survival value to my species, it is a handicap for me. So, it appears that I have to live with it, but precisely that is my problem: I cannot and do not want to live with my short temper.

 So, I seek help by thinking about myself and by talking to others about my ‘problem’. Neither helps: thinking about myself, which includes detailed analyses of the situations where I have lost my temper, either makes me feel utterly despondent or even more ‘guilty’; sage advice of friends of ‘counting tell ten’ before speaking turns out to be impracticable: if I have the presence of mind to ‘count till ten’ when I am angry, I would also have the presence of mind not to say the nasty things I say. This last fact, that I say nasty things too, adds an extra-weight to my self-recriminations: why do I talk (and behave) like an uncivilized brute? Perhaps, I am one such nasty creature even though I know in the heart of hearts that I am not so. My situation could be put in simple terms: I have a problem I cannot live with but I do not know (and nobody else seems to, either) how to get rid of it. At best, all I can do is to look at others and envy them: for the control they are able to exercise; for the kind of creatures they are but, alas, I am not. This, of course, makes the situation even worse: why cannot I do it, while they obviously can?

 I have said enough, I trust, to ring familiar bells in you. This is something we all know and share and, most of us, in some or another aspect of our ‘psychology’, would have felt this at some stage or another. We are familiar too with the endless loop these kinds of problems generate and the extra burdens they place on us. We become the most difficult persons to live with for ourselves. Somehow, we are very unhappy with the way we are and punish ourselves for that. We believe that we could be different; we genuinely wish we would change; we have the required intensity of desire and tons of motivation. Yet, all of these are to no avail. The beast simply refuses. Why?

To answer this simple ‘why’, we need to achieve some clarity first. Let us do that by noticing that two kinds of problems are entwined in the above description: (a) there is the problem of my short temper and what I do when I lose my temper; (b) there is the set of problems and feelings generated by the way I think about myself. If you look at the description closely, or look into how you think about yourself carefully, you will discover something remarkable: most of the problems that make my living so painful are generated by this way of thinking about me and not by my short temper. That is to say, it is not how I am that makes living so painful but how I think about it. The biggest problem is posed by my way of thinking about my existence. Let me call this ‘familiar’ way of thinking about myself as “introspection”. In fact, I would suggest that the biggest obstacle to self-change is this process of introspection and not how I am.

Even though it is extremely important for my purposes to trace the origin and crystallization of this ‘habit’ of introspection, I will skip this bit for now. Let me just say that most of us brought up in the modern cities of India have made introspection our own by the time we reach the age of 14-16. If we also have the fortune (or the misfortune) of going abroad, then by the time we reach our thirties we are mired in this mode. It would have become a ‘natural’ part of us. We have learnt to continuously introspect.

 This process of introspection, which I have learnt exclusively from the West and which has been transmitted to me through the medium of modern education in India and the socializing process abroad, presupposes something about human psychology that is remarkable to say the least. It tells me that this short temper of mine expresses something unique about me and tells the world at large (including me) what kind of a creature I am. Consequently, if I want to change and grow or want to become a different person than who I am at the moment, I have to transform this short temper and all such unique qualities that I possess. That means to say, introspection presupposes that the unique nature of my existence is contained in and expressed by all (and only those) properties (like short temper) that express the unique nature of my person. To understand myself, I need to understand the nature of these unique qualities; to change myself I need the help of ‘depth psychology’ or ‘psychoanalysis’, which tell me ‘how’ to change myself.

 What, then, do I share in common with my fellow human beings? Basically, I share the same biological ‘substratum’: genes, cells, body and brain. Of course, these do have their influences on my ‘psychology’, but at the moment we do not know what and how these influence us. In so far as I am a member of society, the current ‘social psychology’ tells us, I behave in certain ways which (mostly) do not synchronize with my individual psychology: I share prejudices of my community; I act irrationally when in a crowd and violently when a part of a mob and so on. In short, the social and cultural psychology tell us about the ways in which society and culture ‘influence’ our behavior and thinking, which, of course, is mostly different from the way I am. What I am is a confluence of all the unique properties that I have.

As I have said often, this is only one picture about who we are and what we are. This is a story that one culture has produced about human beings. These are not ‘facts’ about ourselves or about the way we are, even though we believe in their ‘truth’. Let me use a metaphor to describe this image about human beings: our biological inheritance forms the foundation of who we are. Above this foundation, a structure gets built. This structure expresses our unique nature and our individual psychology. In one sense, we are this structure. Changing ourselves requires changing this structure. Introspection involves delving into this structure; depth psychology and psychoanalysis dig deeper into this structure and relate layers from this structure to each other. The lower we go in this structure, the more we share with other human beings. The higher we go, the more unique we are. Thus, in the last analysis, depth psychology and psychoanalysis relate the structure to some or another ‘layer’ that is common either across a small group of people (“people who were abused during their childhood”) or across a bigger layer (“the incestuous hunger of a son for his mother”). Whatever the explanation, the point is this: this structure is who we are and any analysis can only relate some layers (or some elements) of this structure to other layers or elements from the same structure. This is the image behind the process of introspection we are so familiar with.

 Two things standout in this regard: (a) the higher I go in the structure, the more unique I am because I share less with other human beings; (b) my ‘uncontrollable’ short temper is undoubtedly how ‘something’ which I share with other human beings is expressing itself at the apex of such a structure. That is why I seem unable to do anything about it. Thus, the apex of the structure is at the same time an expression of my unique nature and also how something else, which is less unique (and therefore what I share with other human beings) is expressing itself. Then, my problem is with this structure itself: the way I am uniquely ‘I’. In short, my problem is precisely with what I take to be my uniqueness!

 This argument appears as a form of reductio ad absurdum of the idea underlying the process of introspection which I have expressed in the form of imagery. On the one hand, I am driven to build and put great weight on the structure I have built because it expresses the unique nature of my being. On the other hand, it is precisely this unique structure that makes me so unhappy because it looks as though it is not ‘sufficiently’ unique or unique enough. On the one hand, I aspire to be unique; on the other, no matter how much I try, I cannot be unique enough to earn that sobriquet. This makes my life a hell. It makes me unhappy. It makes it impossible for me to live with myself. Thus, I have no other choice except to commit suicide.

Hopefully, we can now understand why I said earlier on that the problem lies not in how I am but with how I think about myself: the problem lies not in my short temper but with introspection. It is this way of thinking that is creating the problem and not my being. If that is the case, is there another way to think about ourselves? Can we think about ourselves without introspecting?

Our Indian traditions, with their psychological theory about human beings, and our practices (which still dominate village life) give an affirmative answer to these two almost synonymous questions: yes, there is. Let me sketch the outline of that answer (as I understand it today) using the same imagery I used before, namely, that of a foundation and a structure erected above it. And I will continue to use my short temper as an example.

Suppose that I was born a hundred years ago in Bangalore or born in a village in the interior of Karnataka about 58 years ago. Let us suppose too that I had the same short temper and the same uncontrollable tongue. How would my social circle have looked at it and taught me to go-about with it? After umpteen attempts to help me control my short temper, my parents would have given up on me as well. However, in the course of this process, and as result of their failure, they would have also given me nick name: it could have either referred to the sage Durvasa or to Rudra. In any case, my entire family and my circle of friends would have known about this: Balu has short temper. But, they would have added, ‘this is how he is, but he means no harm and does not mean things he says when he loses his temper’. As I got socialized, I would also learn that ‘this is how I am’ and that there is little I can do about it. As I grew old and acquired nieces and nephews, they too would know: their uncle is short tempered but is otherwise a sweet and lovable man. In short, both the social circle and I would have learnt to accept it as an idiosyncrasy of mine. In the same way someone has a nervous tic, some other person is afraid of spiders, Balu has short temper. My nick name would precede me and I would pay no high price for it. I would learn to live with it without being obsessed about it. My society and my culture would teach me that the structure that gets built on the foundation consists of such idiosyncrasies of people and not worth fretting about. Everyone is, in this sense, idiosyncratic and mine happens to be my short temper.

Notice what has happened in this process. What the western culture teaches us as an expression of the unique nature of our beings is seen in India as nothing but a cluster of idiosyncrasies. One does not introspect about the latter but only regarding the former. The latter is almost inconsequential; the former constitutes the core of our being. This is one of the reasons why there is almost no introspective literature in India and hardly any deep autobiographies that analyze motives, desires and so on the way western autobiographies do.

In such a culture, what does thinking about oneself consist of then if it is not the same as introspection? If idiosyncrasies are not worth thinking about, what do we think about if we want to think about ourselves? The answer is obvious: you can only think about what you share with your fellow human beings (and perhaps even other organisms). That is, you think about the foundation. Reflection about oneself is to reflect about the nature of human beings. To the extent you are an exemplar of the human species, the knowledge you have of your ‘self’ is the knowledge that you have of other human beings. If you are short tempered, greedy or whatever else, your reflections can only be about the nature of anger and the nature of greed. In short, as you go through life and to the extent you think about your ‘self’, you are thinking about fellow human beings and the psychology we all share. The further you push this reflection the more you understand human beings. The more you understand the latter, the more you understand your ‘self’.

 In short, what the Indian culture transmits is this kind of self-reflection. It does not simply tell you that you ‘ought to’ indulge in such reflections. But if you want to, there are multiple tried and tested ways to do this: the varied paths to ‘enlightenment’ (in the Indian sense) are those tried and tested paths to “self-knowledge”. That is why this path does not pain you, does not harm you and does not make you unhappy. It is the route to happiness.

From the contrast I am drawing, we can also distil some general guidelines regarding the difference between introspection on the one hand and reflection about ourselves on the other. When do we know when we are introspecting and when we are thinking about ourselves? Clearly, the objects of reflection are different: introspection focuses on the structure, self-knowledge focuses on the foundation. The manner of thinking is also different: introspection seeks to relate the layers of the structure to each other, whereas self-knowledge focuses on developing hypotheses to account for elements in the foundation. The experience of this thinking too is different: introspection generates pain (and such allied emotions); self-knowledge makes you happier. They also exhibit different kinds of movement: introspection generates a loop and you move without going anywhere and returning to the same point again and again; in self-knowledge there is progress because the nature of the problems changes with each solution you find. The experience you have of the movement is different as well: introspection sends you down a bottomless pit, whereas self-knowledge generates the sense of escape from a cage. Even the experience of your being is different: the more the introspection, the heavier you feel and more load you have to carry. In self-knowledge by contrast, there is a feeling of lightness because the load gets shed and each additional step becomes only the lighter for it. In short, there are two sets of criteria that you can develop: a cognitive set and an experiential set.

The reason why I have gone into this matter is this: the idea of “reflection on experience” makes sense only in relation to a way of thinking that is not introspection. Introspection does not make experience accessible at all; instead, it takes us away from experience. Introspection creates a self-sustaining loop and confines us to a place, where there is no experience at all but only an endless series of imaginary thoughts. The first step in learning to think about experience is to break free of the habit of introspection and desist reflecting on our own individual thoughts, individual feelings and individual sensations.