When you act in the world against your own conscience your mind becomes disturbed. The action rebounds and hurts you. You feel sorry for having acted thus. In reaction to your own action you suffer regret and remorse. An action creating such a response is termed a sin. Sin therefore is not in the action but in the reaction.1
Conscience, Regret, Sin
Acting in accordance with the dictates of the conscience, ensures that we remain free from regret, regardless of the outcome. So why do we act against our own conscience? To answer this we need to understand the mechanism of action.
Actions and choices in life are driven by either the mind, the intellect, or a harmonious blend of the two. The mind is the seat of emotions, desires, likes-and-dislikes. It has no capacity for self-reflection or self-governance and can therefore lead us towards choices that are against our best interests, and that violate our own moral intuitions, sense of right/wrong, or .
The intellect is the faculty of discrimination. It analyzes, reasons, and draws conclusions. It can act as a filter, questioning the motivations, moral worth, and likely consequences of an action, and discarding those that are inappropriate or harmful. However, the noise of desire and emotion may drown out the intellect, rendering it unavailable before an action is performed. The mind alone then determines the choices we make, and it is in this condition that we are vulnerable to making choices that violate the conscience. Often, the intellect becomes available only after the mind's demand has been satisfied. Only then do we recognize that the course of action taken violated the conscience, resulting in regret and remorse. These mental states are ones of high agitation, and are termed 'sin.'
Avoiding this scenario requires a developed intellect to be available before a choice is made. There are two daily practices that must be implemented in order to ensure this: reflection and introspection. Reflection strengthens the intellect, introspection makes the existing intellect available. This blog deals with the introspection. It is the last activity we perform before retiring for the day.
The practice of introspection is simple and easy to follow.2 In a quiet setting, sit comfortably and close the eyes. Take a few deep, relaxing breaths. Now begin to recollect in chronological order the entire day's experiences. Slip back into your own skin and simply observe the actions and reactions that took place over the course of the day. The entire process should take no longer than 5-7 minutes. When you have concluded, retire to bed.
It is essential that the process of introspection be one of remembering only. We must make sure that there is no deviation from the recollection. There is a strong tendency to react to the content of the introspection. We often find ourselves making some sort of internal comment or judgement on the experience, perhaps criticizing a choice that we made, remembering something that we forgot to do or plan to do at a later date, and so forth. Such deviations violate the purpose of introspection, and must be avoided. We are looking to establish an unbroken flow of attention upon the day's activities, and any critique of one's choices breaks this. It may also be counterproductive in that we begin to develop a negatively critical attitude towards ourself. We should of course undertake regular self-reflection, questioning our choices, establishing goals and ideals, developing plans for future actions, and so forth. Important though these activities are, introspection is not the place for them.
Until we become practiced in our introspection, these deviations will be difficult to avoid. Recognize this, and do not allow them to become a source of annoyance or frustration. When you recognize that the attention has wandered from the thread of recollection, simply dismiss the commentary as counterproductive to the current activity, and return the attention to the flow of memories.
A common question regarding introspection is whether it is valuable to write the day's activities down. Introspection is not journalling. Since writing is a far slower process than remembering, to write the day's experiences would become cumbersome and tiring, and we would quickly lose interest in maintaining the practice. It also leaves too much mental 'space' for judgement and analysis.
How Introspection Works
Every action that we perform is preceded by thinking. No action arises spontaneously from the body alone, there is always some mental process that goes on, even when we are not aware of it. If we are able to discern the thinking processes that promote our actions, we are able to intercede and question them, permitting the opportunity to avoid a potentially agitating choice.
Human beings are creatures of habit – in thought, emotion, and action. We tend to have repeating patterns of thought and behavior that express themselves over time. A given environment or stimulus will continue to automatically elicit the same response from us. Some of these habits will be benign or even beneficial, many will be be the cause of regret, and are thus counterproductive to our own wellbeing. Unless we are paying close attention to our inner reactions and choices, we rarely recognize these patterns. Without awareness of the harmful patterns, it is difficult to re-orient our thinking, and thus overcome them. The practice of introspection allows us to become aware of these habits of thought and choice.
Consider a simple example of a regularly repeating episode. Imagine that we regularly share a car ride with a colleague, family member, neighbor, etc to some common destination. Our companion often feels the need to fill the silence, so launches into a banal and annoying series of questions and stories. We can only take so much of this, and so find ourselves rudely cutting him off. Afterward we feel a sense of unease at our outburst and the undeserved chagrin experienced by our companion. Why do we keep doing the same thing over and again, when we will always regret it, and especially when we do have the capacity to deal with the situation better? Because the intellect was not available to assess the proper way to respond to the situation. However, with daily introspection we start to become more aware of the pattern of emotion and behavior that we exhibit as a response to the situation. After a period of time, the moment we hear our companion start up, the recollection of our tendency to rudeness flashes back to us before we react. We are prepared in advance to divert from our usual mode of response. Our existing intellect becomes available to manage the situation before it turns into a regretful action.
Therefore, the benefits of introspection are experienced once we have developed some consistency and momentum in the practice. We cannot expect to become acutely aware of our inner workings unless we are gathering consistent data over time. Therefore, it is important to make a commitment to ourselves to make introspection a daily practice.