In the midst of today’s chaotic world, I find solace in the practice of introspection, a tool that not only grants self-awareness but also fosters a deeper understanding of others. Known in Sanskrit as swadhyaya, meaning “self-study”, introspection is one of the steps along the eightfold path of yoga taught by Patanjali. 

Introspection has saved me in the face of conflict many times. In moments when I want to react to someone with a smart quip and a sharp tongue, it is the practice of introspection that has taught me to pause, notice my reactivity, and allow the time needed before deciding how to act. I’m by no means perfect at this, but concerted effort is bearing fruit, just ask my family!

In this practice, there are a few essential qualities that I have found invaluable to unlocking higher potential. Those qualities include self compassion, acceptance, calmness, humility, and honesty.  

A few years ago, I got a lesson in the importance of these qualities to unlock truly transformational introspection. I stood across a horse arena, quietly observing my equine coaching client as she walked a horse around the circle. She talked as she walked, explaining to the horse her feelings of jealousy, judgemental thoughts, and her constant striving and failing at perfection. The horse said nothing of course, he just walked calmly by her side. 

When she stopped, he offered her a gentle exhale with his big head resting against her chest. She quieted and they stood there for some moments. I watched her shoulders soften, her breathing slow. She turned to me, tears in her eyes and explained that she’d never felt so loved and accepted by another, even as she shared her most shameful thoughts and feelings. She left feeling resolved to work on her issues with greater determination. 

In observing this interaction, it was crystal clear how self honesty, paired with these benevolent qualities embodied by the horse, made all the difference in the world. Applied in our daily lives, this practice of swadhyaya invites us to notice our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors honestly. In noticing, we must fight the temptation to judge ourselves and instead see with the eyes of the Divine Mother, letting her compassionate heart give us the strength and the hope to improve ourselves. 

As Swami Kriyananda explains in Paramhansa Yogananda: A Biography, “One who makes it a practice always to analyze his own motives, to catch any self-justification in the bud, and to accept always with an open mind the possibility that he has been wrong, will direct his footsteps unfailingly toward the ultimate Goal. Such a person will act always without personal motive, to please God.”

Yogananda often counseled that to see yourself as a “sinner” is a greater sin than the negative actions themselves. The goal, after all, of Self-realization is to recognize one’s true Divine nature and live that truth wholly. The pitfall of introspection comes when we look through our human eyes alone and see only our imperfections. And as many will attest, what we focus our attention on will increase, not decrease. Let us, instead, view ourselves through the lens of the Divine. Only then can we embrace the entirety of ourselves with love, approach with humility and hope, and subsequently, find the freedom to change.

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