The Lost Practice of Self-Examination
A practice that can help us become good.
Posted October 26, 2018
Self-examination is one of many spiritual practices present across many wisdom traditions that we would do well to implement in our own lives. In a discussion of this practice, contemporary philosopher James Gould says that self-examination is the "regular monitoring and assessment of our own moral progress."1
Many advocates of this practice, past and present, note that it should be engaged in twice a day. In the morning, the aim is to think through all that you must do in the day to come, with a focus on the responsibilities and obligations that you have on that day. The evening examination is meant to review the day.
During this end-of-day review, one might pose several questions. Seneca, the Roman philosopher, asked himself:
- "What bad habit did I cure today?"
- "What temptation did I resist?"
- "In what specific way am I better than I was yesterday?"
We might also ask ourselves what virtues we exemplified: courage, honesty, compassion, or others? Did I treat others with respect? Was I fair to myself and others? Or one might opt for a simple question suggested by the Dalai Lama: "Did I have a kind heart today?"
This kind of exercise can be very helpful. We may spend time thinking through many of our goals, both professional and personal, and in order to be successful, we form specific intentions and then put them into practice in our actual lives. We must avoid morbid introspection or unwarranted guilt, but if we make becoming a better person one of our goals in life, the practice of self-examination can help us make progress. As Gould puts it, "Careful self-analysis is an important means of self-transformation."
1. James Gould, Becoming good: The role of spiritual practice," Philosophical Practice 1 (2005): 135-147. Quotations from p. 145.