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The Socrates Bust in the Vatican

When Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living” he was challenging us to a lifetime of rigorous introspection. (Photo: Wikimedia)

When Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living” he was not recommending a life spent in endless naval-gazing, the practice of complacent self-absorption. He meant something far more rigorous. Pertaining to our day to day lives, he was telling us that philosophy is a lifelong dedication to accurate analysis and sound critical thinking about what life is and all that it means. Regarding our inner lives, we interpret his words as a call to honest introspection and an indication of the rich rewards that flow from the practice.

This raises an important question. What is the difference between introspection and self-absorption?

Rumination as a (Possibly Bad) Habit

I am an introvert. Like all introverts, rumination is a way of life for me. Across many years, I was a conscious believer in the act of rumination, which I will define as the fine art of sitting and doing nothing while letting the mind idly wander or perhaps ponder, often somewhat obsessively, some event of the day. What I randomly mulled over might include an anxiety-inducing blunder I had made, something someone had said that seemed to have important overtones, or more happily, my creative writing or a new philosophical idea.

Like many others of my kind, I frequently spent the time taking stock; that is, I would review how various aspects of my life were going and what I had in mind for the future. This involved contemplating my thoughts, feelings, and conduct. In other words, I was thinking about myself. If you are an introvert yourself, you no doubt recognize the behaviour. If you are an extravert, this probably all seems an eyebrow-raising waste of time.

In the 1990s, caught up in the throes of psychotherapy and a resurrected desire to become a published author, I had decided the rumination habit was a necessary and inevitable aspect of the individuation process (what I called “the journey”) and the act of creation as it pertained to writing. It seemed a sort of active incubation process that, inexplicably, ultimately yielded “hard won” progress past some poorly understood sticking point.

Later, I underwent a profound change in this attitude. Now I shrink from such poorly directed brooding, believing that it saps motivation while allowing the onset of depression and psychological chaos. I choose instead to recognize any sticking point anywhere as a clear signal that some active learning is required. I do not passively allow my thoughts to drift slowly past an obstruction but actively seek ways through or around the blockage.

The reason for the radical change of attitude arose from the realization that rumination is a vague term that may include some counter-productive mental habits. In turn, this insight was part of my growing emotional and cognitive literacy.

The best way to classify healthy rumination is to include it with such things as musing, contemplation, and reflection. Unhealthy rumination is self-absorption, an unwholesome preoccupation with our own emotions, interests, or situation. Healthy rumination can be useful, uplifting, and even enlightening. Unhealthy rumination means getting too wrapped up in ourselves.

Separating Introspection from Self-absorption

All rumination directed at ourselves is introspection, but we must be careful to distinguish between useful introspection and mere self-absorption. The former is the careful examination, or honest evaluation, of our own mental and emotional processes with an aim to understanding them. The latter is a permanent preoccupation with, and fondness for, our own subjectivity and feelings to the exclusion of any consideration for others. Self-absorbed individuals are remarkably selfish and lack both sympathy and empathy when dealing with other people.

Separating Reflection from Self-absorption

It is also important to discriminate between the act of backward reflection and the state of morbid self-absorption. Reflection is introspection that takes place when an experience is over. It is an attempt to understand the inner aspects of that experience, to make sense of them, to put them into the proper context, and to learn. In sharp contrast, individuals locked in self-absorption are more interested in savouring, reliving, or simply obsessing about an experience. They are fixated on how they personally reacted to what happened and make little genuine effort to understand the significance of the event.