Self-reflection, self-deception, and the allure of the enlightened self

If there were one quality I could better cultivate in myself and encourage in others, it would be an enriched capacity for self-reflection. Nearly every rash, petty, or otherwise unskillful thing I’ve done, and watched others do, seems to be rooted, at least partly, in poor self-awareness. Given the raging popularity of all things navel gazingly mindful, I am in good company in believing in the life changing power of this kind of attention.

Still, it can be hard to pin down precisely what self-reflection means, partly because of how diluted and trendy the notion has become. As with our ability to drive a car — pretty much all of us think we’re “above average” drivers — we overestimate our skill and commitment to self-reflection. Discussions about greater self-understanding, then, can easily become focused on what other people need to do and not on one’s own deficits. And, paradoxically, it is this relentless blaming of others that most dramatically reveals one’s own blunted capacity for self-reflection.

As I understand it, self-reflectiveness is an aspect of mindfulness that has us gently, intentionally, and repeatedly turning our gaze inward to non-judgmentally acknowledge and explore our motives, assumptions, and expectations. It’s a practice that has us take some responsibility, not just for our internal feelings and beliefs, but also for aspects of the objective world that we shape and distort through the subjective lenses we bring to it. The unreflective person, then, is a consummate victim of circumstances, always blaming others and the world for wherever she finds herself.

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And, of course, self-reflection demands not just an inward turn, but scrupulous honesty about what is found there. So, for example, several years after a series of catastrophic personal losses — including the death of my mother — I was able to notice and take responsibility for my own developing romance with suffering. What I saw wasn’t a healthy, cleansing grief, but an incipient attachment to a “poor me” (and “why me?”) identity that gradually threatened to become my way of being in the world. When I look inward, I do not always like what I see, and it takes courage I don’t always have to tell the truth about that. It takes even greater courage to, as one of my teachers urges, “tell the truth about whether or not you are telling the truth.”

Human beings lie all the time, of course. We lie to save money, to feel important and to spare peoples’ feelings. But self-deception is not as well explored. A woman lies because she did not take the time, or perhaps even know how, to locate and inspect her feelings. A man fails to promote social justice because he cannot (and will not) acknowledge the actual power and freedom he could bring to bear. The truly perverse part may well be that we also conspire with others to overlook one another’s self-deceptions. We agree, in the language of one of my teachers, “to support one another’s stories” as a condition of friendship. So, for example, we nod in sympathy at the spendthrift friend who complains constantly about lacking money, and also when an astonishingly rude acquaintance complains about other peoples’ manners. Friendly “politeness” turns out to be an agreement to support the self-deceptions most of us rely on to maintain our fragilely constructed selves.

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We professors complain a lot about students lacking the basic wherewithal to critically reflect on ideas, texts, and their own assumptions. For liberal arts teachers, this failure to recognize one’s own limited positionality, and to take responsibility for the assumptions through which one frames the world, is a tendency in students that we love to hate. We cringe as students storm like bulls through the subtle, humbling philosophical invitations our courses present, choosing trite, automatic reactions rather than authentic response.

But surely it isn’t only, or even primarily, students who skim along the surface this way, half asleep and unable to see the boards that fill their own eyes. Practiced and polished professors can, perhaps, more skillfully enact and maintain a persona of mindful self-reflection, a habit of seeing ourselves as more self reflective than we actually are. It’s a persona that is so seductive and satisfying we may never feel compelled to peek behind it. In the meantime we can join the party, regaling one another with stories about those unenlightened others, including our poor benighted students.

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