Insight is something we understand as a virtue. A quality we would all be better off for possessing. It's something that we either strive for (or probably more likely), something that we either don't consider much or consider we already possess.
Insight is defined as 'the capacity to gain an accurate and deep understanding about someone or something’. One of the most important ‘someone(s)’ that we can develop a deep understanding of is our very own Yours Truly. In fact this is where the cultivation of insight has to start; our ability to understand others and to interpret our experiences correctly is directly related to the extent to which we understand ourselves. Insight isn't something we are born with. Sure, some of us might naturally have a greater capacity for it than others, but it's something that we all have to try to develop within ourselves.
Why should we?
Much of the quality of our lives rests on our capacity for insight. With insight comes understanding, and with understanding comes meaning. As a wise woman once told me; the pursuit of happiness is overrated. It is not happiness that gives us life quality. It is the ability to make meaning from our life. And the two don't always go together. To seek to always be happy is like trying to make water dry; it's just not in it's nature. It's also kind of missing the point. There are so many things to feel, so many tones of emotions that are not only an inevitable part of life but also give life it's richness and beauty. Many of these things, of course, we would not actively seek, yet they exist nonetheless and they certainly can have beneficial effects. Happiness all the time wouldn't be happiness because there would be no way for it to know itself. It’s not happiness that is responsible for forming our characters or giving us the strengths we possess. The search to find meaning is ultimately far more significant to a fulfilled and purposeful life than the search for happiness. One of the fundamental things that sets apart those who experience a sense of meaning in their life and those who don't, is their capacity for insight. If we don't nurture insight, then we become passive and we cheat ourselves of the opportunity to learn and grow from the events in our life. As Socrates once said; ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’.
How do we cultivate insight?
The method for cultivating insight is actually pretty simple. At it's heart lies the process of asking ourselves discerning questions and then being honest in our answer of them. And this process requires that we make it a mental habit if we are to acquire it.
The fact that it rests on a habit is very good news - it's yours for the taking if you just do something. But you do have to actually do something. Practices such as meditation, mindfulness and yoga can also help us develop insight by stilling the incessant chatter of our minds and creating internal space and perspective. The side effect of many of these practices is that we naturally become adept at seeing ourselves more truly as we are and nurture an ability to pause and reflect, rather than simply reacting based on a faulty and misguided interpretation of ourselves and our experiences. Yet still, the questioning and and answering are key.
Why we find it so hard
So it sounds pretty simple, right? This process of asking ourselves penetrating questions and answering them authentically. As simple as it is, the theory often belies the practice. This is actually some pretty tough shit. And if it were easy then there would be a lot less arseholes walking around. But alas, incase you hadn't noticed, arseholes abound.
The truth is, that cultivating insight takes balls. It's courageous. It's exceptionally easy to be uninsightful because our subconscious wants to protect our ego from the less than perfect truth about ourselves. In order to cultivate insight we have to actively invite discomfort, a very personal and self-directed form of discomfort that doesn't taste so yummy. the kind of discomfort that we hate; discomfort for which there's no one to blame. And if there were, it could only be ourselves. Yikes. It's amazing how good we are at feigning our own motivations for things or ignoring a message/ lesson because it might show us something about ourselves we would really rather not see.
A crucial first step, before we can hope to be honest in our answering of the questions we may ask ourselves, is to understand that no matter how nice you may think you are, no matter how ‘good’ you may pride yourself on being, how many charities you give money to, how many strangers you smile at, how many books about self-development you may have read, however much you really, really try to be a good person, there will be things about yourself that make you uncomfortable. You have to know that you can be an arsehole. Because until you admit that, you will always shy away from any real questioning of yourself in the fear of what it might show up. Or you will simply lie to yourself. Neither are the friends of insight. You are not perfect. You are not expected to be. And if you do expect yourself to be, then you seriously need to give yourself a break. It is enough to just try and be the best person you can be. It is enough to sincerely seek to be a lovely human being. It's perhaps a little ironic that unless you admit that you have the capacity to be not quite so lovely as you believe yourself to be, then you are actually limiting any potential to grow into a more lovely person.
Tips for putting it into practice
The important thing to understand about the cultivation of insight is that it is a mental skill, one that rests on it becoming a mental habit. So in order to nurture it within ourselves we have to do what we would do with any new skill we are trying to learn; give it attention, put effort in and set aside time to dedicate to practicing it. At first the effort it takes is pretty great. It will feel unnatural and awkward and we will fight against a mind that would rather be ignorant. But in time, and less time that you might imagine, the process of inquiring and honestly answering will become a part of your nature, and a part of how you operate and figure things out.
Another important tip is that in providing honest answers to the questions you ask, always seek to find the root; to peel back another layer of truth to see what lies behind it, until you reach a point where you cannot delve any further. Let me give you an example…
A while ago after my parents divorced my mum would call me up and start talking about the difficulties she was experiencing. She would tell me how she still loved my dad and how deeply saddened she was but that it was necessary for them to part. These conversations never ended well because I would become increasingly stressed out in response to what she was saying and I would get frustrated and become short with her.
Every time these phone calls would end I would have a little cry and feel disconcerted and confused. After a few times I realised that I really needed to take a look at exactly what was going on here if there were any hope of not repeating this pattern. Why do these conversations always end badly and make me feel pretty awful?
In spending some time with the question, I realised that it was my own discomfort at seeing my mum go through these difficulties that made me frustrated and feel like I had to do something to alleviate it, that I had to give her advice. But the child inside wanted her to give me advice. Wanted her to look after me. I realised I was being stuck somewhere in my childhood, regressing to the very linear mother-daughter relationship, and that the real reason I felt frustrated was at my own inability to be a friend to my mother. She didn't need someone to save her or give her life advice, she just needed someone to talk to. She needed someone to listen to her. That she felt she could talk to me about this was actually a privilege I was failing to see. She saw me as my own person and as adult enough to hear these things and just be there for her.
Underneath my frustration was a deep sense of guilt for my failing to be the kind of daughter to my mother that I wanted to be. Looking at this I saw just how selfish I was being in relation to the woman I adore more than any other, and this, my friends, made me feel ashamed. Once I realised all of this it was like cleaning up a fogged mirror. It was incredibly cathartic and elucidating and it has changed my behaviour massively.
To begin with, I recommend carrying a journal around with you (or even just use the recorder on your phone), and write down things that you experience that you feel deserve some focused attention in order to understand. These things are pretty obvious. You will know what these things are based on the way they make you feel and your natural tendency to want to mentally shift away from any further time spent with them. Then set aside just 5 minutes to ask yourself questions and give answers to these things. Allow your answer to be an uncensored stream of consciousness and remember that thing about being an arsehole. The answers you find won't solve the problem immediately, but you will gain valuable insight into yourself, which will, in time, impact your thinking and behaviour for the better. As you continue to put this into practice you will find yourself doing it spontaneously in response to things that happen in your life.
No amount of insight will make you 'perfect' or stop you from ever being an arsehole (you'll need full enlightenment for that and even then...), but it will help you to live a more meaningful and authentic life, one based on really knowing yourself.
It will help make you beautiful …
Be You To The Full.