Self-reflection is crucial for humans to flourish–both on the mundane and on the spiritual path. Phakchok Rinpoche teaches here in an excerpt from a recent visit to Gomde Austria, making the point that regular reflection is really the deep meaning of mindfulness.
Rinpoche asks a question: Do we begin every meditation session by reflecting on our actions and our character? Do we know our own ground?
Self-reflection: Top Priority
We’re busy people and have lots of responsibilities and activities, so often we may forget to engage in self-reflection. But, we may want to look carefully at what we prioritize. If we don’t make time for self-reflection, we don’t need to apologize–but we should remind ourselves how important this is. And we should begin our meditation sessions with a few minutes of reflection–don’t leave it to the last thing we do. If we form the habit of checking ourselves, we are actually taking steps toward becoming a bodhisattva, a buddha.
However, if we don’t spend time in self-reflection, we continue making mistakes. And that means we continue as sentient beings rather than transforming into buddhas. Sentient beings don’t improve because they keep repeating mistakes. But self-reflections helps us to avoid that pitfall.
That’s not new information for many of us–we’ve heard this message before. Indeed, self-reflection is not unique to Buddhist thought. As the mosaic pictured here reminds us, the ancient Greeks and Romans advised seekers to “Know Thyself”. But we we need to check–are we making self-reflection a top priority?
Meditation Becomes Mainstream
Rinpoche jokes that these days many doctors and those in the medical profession even remind us to relax, let go, practice meditation, watch our breath–to keep ourselves physically healthy. Now, mindfulness and meditation is becoming more mainstream–and this is a good thing. But, we can’t leave meditation at watching the breath.
On top of that, we need to also practice reflection. And we have to remember all our different roles and responsibilities–are we upholding all our responsibilities and treating people kindly? Moreover, we honestly look at our behavior–our thoughts, words and actions. And if we see that we made mistakes, we remind ourselves–this is what being mindful really means. If we’re not mindful, we may not watch our speech–and we say things we later regret, or things that cause others pain. Without self-reflection, we won’t notice these small slip-ups.
Self-reflection On Crucial Points of Practice
This reflection time also gives us an opportunity to recall key points of teaching. We can remind ourselves of our motivation–taking time to generate, and really feel bodhicitta, for example. And we take the time to notice that we were lazy, or distracted, or agitated–and we then reset our intention. This is the way to practice spiritual self-reflection. As we familiarize ourselves with this process, we can go deeper in our reflection.
Self-reflection on Our Own Negative Emotions
We start by looking at our own negative emotions–which emotion causes us most problems? Really take some time to check each one of the negative emotions. In Buddhist teachings, we speak of five negative or destructive emotions: anger, pride, jealousy, attachment and ignorance. We watch our own behavior and examine in a detailed way–where do we repeatedly make mistakes? Ignorance, Rinpoche remarks, comes down to not seeing our own mistakes. When we are ignorant, we don’t want to admit our mistakes and we don’t have any motivation to improve. When we have a method to improve, and we understand that but don’t apply the method–that is ignorance.
In the morning, before you go about your daily activities, take just a few minutes to reflect on your motivation and your intentions. If there is a quotation from a teaching that inspires you, read that silently, or aloud. If there is a spiritual figure who inspires you, look at a photo or representation of that being. Think about how you wish to transform. If you know that you may encounter difficult situations in your day, reflect on how you can prepare yourself to meet those with an open and kind heart.
You may want to think of a word or phrase to repeat silently to yourself during the day to keep you on track. And if you know that you are struggling with one of the negative emotions, gently remind yourself of that–and set the intention not to give into that habit. Some people find it helpful to use a written note as a reminder. Experiment with what works for you–you can be playful in your reflection, not harsh and self-critical. in this way, if you catch yourself under the influence of negativity, you can laugh at yourself–aha–that’s anger–and then you give yourself space to shift gears. You may find that just catching yourself in this way, and identifying the emotion, immediately deflates its power.
Again, at the end of the day, spend a few moments in self-reflection. Think about your actions, your words and your thoughts during the day. Were you able to maintain awareness? If you made mistakes, acknowledge those and reflect on how you might have acted differently. Don’t dwell on negativity or judge yourself harshly–instead, simply think–next time I will react differently. As you go to sleep, make the commitment to continue your transformation.
Ignorance must include the possibility of being ignorant of being ignorant – that is to say, not knowing that we are ignorant.