Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.   12-21

ABSTRACT:  It is posited that self-observation and contemplation (introspective time with oneself) is an important element in finding happiness and contentment, establishing better relations with others, and making good decisions for one’s life.

KEY WORDS:  contemplation, meditation, introspection, inner peace, personality integration, self-awareness

There a number of maladies that have become endemic to modern cultures, including greater impulsivity, thoughtlessness, mistaking appearances for reality, and being unable to be with oneself alone comfortably.  These problems stem from greater availability of entertainment on screens, on our mistaken belief that the group must be right in what is chooses (so we should choose the same), and on the human penchant for taken the easiest routes to our goals.

Our screens ask for immediate clicks and do not encourage thoughtful choice, thus pushing us toward impulsivity.  We can’t risk getting behind or missing some actions by our “friend” group, so we don’t reflect or fully consider before clicking.  We can get everything we want (or at least everything that is presented to us as a possible choice) through our screens, so there is no need for us to learn (to take in knowledge and use it in our choices) or to think seriously about our choice of goals (what is really important in life), because if everyone else is doing it, it must be good.  Our screen interactions are imbued by platforms with importance (click to show your likes; check your screen every five minutes to ensure you don’t get left out; get notifications every time someone posts something that could be relevant; look for and value the perfect rather than reality; everyone else is doing it so it must be important and meaningful).

We mistake acquaintances for friends (helped along by Facebook’s calling them all “friends”), and our dispersal and anonymity in modern life militate against having actual, hands-on interactions with people who could become real friends.  We make those superficial acquaintances the keepers of our worth as persons, since we haven’t taken the time to build up a stable sense of self inside ourselves.  We end up trying to please this gaggle of distant “friends”, since acceptance seems so important (and also so tenuous), and we feel no value without them.  We are not even a little self-sufficient since we see everything in terms of standards originating outside ourselves.  We cannot maintain a sense of value within ourselves since we don’t know ourselves well enough to trust ourselves or to be a support for ourselves in times of trouble. 

The net result of this lifestyle is being unable to be alone comfortably with ourselves, because we have no confidence in our long-term acceptability to others, don’t know who we are aside from our screen relationships, and have no inner life (thinking, self-support, imagination?) without the stimulation of our screens.  Even worse, our internal world seems mainly populated by critical voices and voices pushing us to do more and more.  Even more serious is the fact that we are becoming less capable of being participating citizens in our democracy, since a democracy such as ours requires that voters be well informed about issues and problems, while our petty and personality-oriented media feed us exactly what many people want—over-generalizations, unsubstantiated rumor, purposely misinterpreted facts, drama, and conflict.  (The fact that this is what many people want raises a separate question about whether democracy is really what many Americans want, and we see consequences of this in Mr. Trump’s election, since he had essentially no platform except antagonism and fighting but was elected on the basis of his personality and anti-establishment rhetoric—ironic since he himself is as establishment as they come!)

This superficial life favors extroverts somewhat, since they are those most likely to put themselves forward and to most value the approval of others, and therefore are the most likely to “succeed” in the superficial world.  Introverts are more open to contemplation, but they have their sense of invisibility reinforced by the fact that extroverts pretend and speak widely of how great their on-line friends are.

The internet is not the only factor engendering this existential position in us.  This superficial life moves us toward being followers, since only so many people can “go viral” and inspire others to look continually at screens detailing their lives (where they went, what they said, what they ate, how they danced, etc.), which are so important!  This makes it seem natural to be tiny cogs in a huge network of worker-ants that we don’t really understand and in which our value is determined by ever more superficial “data” gathered about us without our knowledge.  This form of participation may be convenient for our ever larger and more complex human enterprises, but the tininess of our “place” in the network inspires continual insecurity and thinking often of ourselves as imposters, since no one really knows us.  These huge networks militate against our feeling secure, since they change without our knowledge or permission and their size and anonymity mean that we are not known or valued personally within them.

Internet life and dispersed life (not living near the people who matter to you so you can see them often) remind us of adolescent life, when peer acceptance was paramount and those who did not achieve it felt condemned to be second class persons.  Those who do find success in this social struggle are encouraged by their success to further pursue life in the same superficial manner, having value (popularity) only in the eyes of others and taking advantage of our opportunity to notify millions of persons about ourselves and to derive some income even if only a tiny percentage respond to us.


It is true that we form our first sense of self from how parents and other caregivers treat us, but maturity (at least in what has up to know been the traditional sense of maturity) calls on us to become partially independent of the evaluations and wishes of others.  Naturally we will always pay attention to what others think of us, since we must cooperate with them to achieve our material and fulfillment goals, but in order to be “solid” and “real” people, we must know ourselves, pay primary attention to the value we put on ourselves independent of the evaluations and wishes of others, and be able to stand for what we believe is important, fair, and just even when others disagree.  To be mature (and wise) means to know what is truly important and seek that out in life, at the same time that we play our social roles, which require at times some suppression or omission of our personal selves.

This self-knowledge and self-valuing are hard won, because they require being aware of everything about ourselves, including the things that we fear in ourselves, the things that we are embarrassed or guilty about, and the things that we do not like about ourselves.  (Can you imagine putting on your Facebook timeline a statement of something you have discovered about yourself that you don’t like?  Your “friends” would not like you bringing that up (because it brings into question their own self-rejection), and you would lose status.  The problem is even greater on Twitter since only brief statements about complex topics are permitted!)  Once aware of everything about ourselves, we face the task of liking and loving that self that we are! 

We are so conditioned to condemn ourselves for everything others don’t like and to hide those things from others and from ourselves that it is a monumental change to have some acceptance and compassion for ourselves.  Fortunately, this intimate knowing of ourselves through contemplation and (eventual) self-acceptance can engender greater understanding of others and sympathy for them, since we will see our flaws and imperfections and know that we share having those with everyone else.  We all struggle with self-acceptance and with acknowledging just how imperfect we are.  Really knowing ourselves and others leads to wisdom, which is not knowing facts but knowing human nature.


Self-reflection or self-contemplation is the key activity in really knowing oneself and knowing others.  Contemplation is “allowing in our consciousness all that is within us and then seriously considering selected aspects of that.”  In self-awareness and contemplation we take time to sink fully into our internal selves and allow everything and anything that is there to come to or move through our consciousness. 

Happiness and contentment can be enhanced through contemplation.  After contemplation leads us to know ourselves fully, including all of our strengths, weaknesses, and flaws, we can give up trying to hide our weaknesses and flaws from others (and ourselves), which allows us to relax more in life and use our time and resources to make a truly good life.  Contemplation also leads us to recognize the unimportance or falseness of some of our previous interests and desires (i.e., recognizing that accepting oneself is more important than the approval of others, that satisfaction and fulfillment are more gratifying than simply giving oneself pleasures, and that “likes” on Facebook mean almost nothing to one’s real self).  The resulting focus on what is truly important and truly gratifying leads to greater happiness, satisfaction, and fulfillment, and this allows us to be fully content with our lives.

Really knowing everything about yourself will take time.  Contemplation is not a short-term solution to all of your problems.  However, the goals and possible benefits of a long-term practice of self-observation, self-awareness, and contemplation are—

  • knowing everything about yourself, so you can use all of your skills and abilities to get along better in life,
  • recognizing your flaws and weaknesses as well as your strengths,
  • becoming compassionate and accepting about yourself because you know who you really are and accept your humanness and imperfection,
  • being more relaxed and confident in life, because you realize that the things about yourself that you have been hiding from yourself are not that important, so you can now accept yourself as you are,
  • being able to change things about yourself, because basically accepting yourself allows you to stop hiding and fighting yourself,
  • making better life decisions, because you understand yourself and your values better,
  • understanding others better
  • becoming more accepting and tolerant of others, because you know you are similar to them,
  • finding love within yourself for all other creatures,
  • getting along better with others because you have greater empathy and understand and accept them better, and
  • feeling less inner conflict, a greater sense of inner peace, and a feeling of greater integration within yourself,
  • increasing your happiness, satisfaction, fulfillment, and contentment, through knowing yourself fully and being realistic about life and about others,
  • gaining an exhilarating view of all existence and seeing your positive place in it.


The fundamental activity in self-observation is observing something about ourselves (a thought, a feeling, an action) or about someone else (or nature).  The more we observe, including observing our reactions to being aware of something, the more we can learn, although this goes against our “natural” tendency to ignore things that don’t feel good and therefore not to notice things that provoke negative reactions in us. 

The observing comes first, and the contemplation follows the observing, when we ask “why” questions of ourselves and allow all of our associations to the subject to come to the surface and be seen.  We wonder what our observations mean about ourselves and how they fit with other things you thought you knew.  Purposeful contemplation often brings forth from within ourselves insights that we’ve never considered.  Purposeful contemplation may even bring out knowledge that seems not to originate within us, as when Quakers sit together in silence focusing on being open to whatever might come from God or the spirit of the universe. 

There are many styles of observing.  Some call on you to empty your mind and not focus on anything, and some use a focus (a candle flame or mantra, for example) as a means of keeping your thoughts from running away.  The key for our purposes is to allow yourself to notice everything occurring in yourself, including sensations, thoughts, and feelings, but not to concentrate at that moment on any one of these.  Just let them pass by.  Notice them, and let them go.  Be aware of them, but don’t narrow your focus to any one of them.  (This method is the basis for transcendental meditation and most forms of mindfulness meditation, as well as some Buddhist approaches.)

To establish a habit of observing takes practice, and for most people establishing a habit of observing requires establishing set, scheduled periods for practicing observing.  At first, give yourself 30-minute sessions, three times a week or every other day.  Set aside that time for uninterrupted inner awareness.  During that time, do not answer the phone or respond to others.  This may take some discipline, but success lies mostly in finding times and places where you will not be interrupted anyway! 

Get comfortable, either sitting or in a meditation pose if you like.  Relax yourself consciously, focusing at least 10 seconds (as you start learning how to do it) on each part of your body in turn to relax it.  (“Notice how your feet feel.  What tensions are there?  Feel yourself in your feet, relax and let those tensions go.”)  Let go, and let all of your tensions flow out of you.  Most people start with the feet and move up to the head, but you can do it in the other direction as well.

With your eyes closed, allow yourself to sink into the depths of your awareness.  (For myself, it seems like I am in a huge empty space.)  Let yourself be there, without concern.  Soon you will notice things that are happening within you—a need to scratch your right foot, fear of what might come up next, a feeling of emptiness, an argument within yourself over whether to continue to stay in this observing mode, etc.  It doesn’t matter what you are aware of–just let it be, notice it, don’t try to analyze it, and let it pass out of current awareness as something else comes into awareness.  Don’t judge or evaluate anything, just be aware.  You can think later about what you observe. 

What you observe may be like things you see in your dreams.  You may be surprised or even alarmed by some things you observe, but that is OK.  You wouldn’t be observing these things unless they were already inside you somewhere.  If tensions rise, focus again on relaxing.  Each session will be different; don’t evaluate how you are doing at it, but simply be present for whatever comes up.  There is no need to label anything good or bad, and if something seems threatening, you can evaluate if further later.  Stay in your inner space for the full observation time. You can go beyond your planned time if you feel like it.

As you become practiced at contemplating, you may add walking sessions (in safe, relaxing places), and ultimately you can observe yourself without judgment more or less all the time, noticing interesting things and at some later point thinking about what those things mean or how you can use the information to advantage.  If the prospect of observing yourself more and more is frightening to you (like Big Brother surveillance), question which part of yourself is afraid and which part of yourself might act like Big Brother if given the opportunity.  If you are afraid of a part of yourself, perhaps you should make friends with that part and help that part to “join the crowd” within or accept the rest of you.  If you are afraid of accepting all of yourself, it’s time to explore why you are afraid of yourself or doubt your acceptability to others.

It will be natural for many in our society to worry that periods of observation/meditation are wasting time, since we have expectations to use all of our available time for “worthwhile” activities, usually seen to be those that move us toward more possessions and status.  Time with yourself, including observation/meditation, is not a waste, however, since it is time invested in yourself—in your capacities to be a real and solid person, to know yourself, to support yourself when needed, and ultimately to relate more effectively and productively with others because you have developed your internal strengths.  Most people who take seriously the observation/meditation project find that there are satisfying results, albeit not those directly related to more possessions and greater status.  You will feel better about yourself and more accepting of yourself and will have greater appreciation of your inner life.

Having someone to share your feelings with as you become more self-aware can be helpful.  It doesn’t have to someone who is also practicing observing.  You don’t need to go to a guru to learn observation and contemplation, but if you want a practiced and practicing contemplator to imitate, you can find some training in meditation.  A meditation group can be quite useful and encouraging.  You can search for meditation groups, Transcendental Meditation groups, Zen groups, and other Buddhist groups (which you can benefit from without adopting any particularly “religious” beliefs or practices).


The ultimate step is to use what you observe to increase your understanding of yourself, others, and life.  This largely involves exploring things that arouse fear, shame, or guilt in you and things that are inconsistent with other aspects of yourself.  Your immediate tendency upon recognizing a thought, feeling, or action that arouses a negative feeling in yourself will probably be to reject it and try to not think about it.  Contemplation is a purposeful way to sit with and live with these things and learn what we can from them, about ourselves, others, and life.  Most of our shame, guilt, and fear are reactions that we have learned from important other people, and we may be trying to preserve our relationships with them by thinking and feeling the same way they do about things.  (Note that in different societies, people may be ashamed of, guilty about, or fearful of different things.  These reactions do not originate within us, which underscores their impermanent nature.)  Our great need to be accepted, at least minimally, by others so that we will be accepted as a group member and can benefit from joint projects prompts us to try to align ourselves with how others think and feel, but wisdom and self-acceptance come from having our own view of all that we are aware of, which is often not the view of others.  We can still cooperate with others and have good relations with others even though we see the world differently.

Useful contemplation involves perceiving something in observation about yourself that distresses you without running away.  It will be helpful as you learn to do this to have scheduled contemplation sessions (separate from your observation times), but later on, you can do this in smaller doses if necessary.  First let yourself see the matter fully by giving yourself time to let all of your memories, associations, thoughts, and feelings about the feeling, thought, or sensation at issue come to your attention.  Then you can wonder about how you came to see yourself, others, or life that way and why to be that way became dangerous (because you were punished and/or rejected for it, or feared that you would be).  You can begin to understand why you now shy away from it and try not to think about it.  You can then wonder if your reaction to it is useful or whether the net result is bad for you. 

Some people try to keep themselves from attack by others by keeping an eagle eye on themselves for any sign of an inclination to do “bad” behavior.  These inclinations result in self-criticism and self-rejection, which is sometimes severe.  You can consider whether accepting those rejected parts of yourself might be better for you, since it would allow you to be in less conflict with yourself.  (Since we always do what we believe to be in our best interest, if it would be in your best interest not to act in ways that would cause trouble for you, then you won’t act in those ways, and if you still act in those ways, it tells you that at least a part of you still believes that to do so is in your best interest, which is something you might wish to change!)  One of the most fulfilling results of observation and contemplation is realizing that you don’t need to control yourself by harming, rejecting, or bullying yourself but that you can concentrate on doing what is truly in your best interest (which may not be what you would most like to do at any given moment)!

Most of our inner conflicts and troubling feelings arise from identifying (with the help of others) things about ourselves that are “bad” (meaning displeasing to those others).  In order not to be rejected or punished, we police ourselves and do our best not to be “bad,” but if this “bad” aspect of ourselves is something essential to our emotional well-being, then we will be in perpetual conflict within ourselves about it.  These “bad” things might include being assertive, disagreeing with authority, or repressing our sexuality.  (Don’t worry, you will not be thorugh personal growth to undo your aversion to murdering others or stealing from them!)  Much of therapy is learning as adults that our original labeling of things as “bad” was in error and that it is currently harming us.

Another thing to contemplate is inconsistencies within yourself that you observe.  You say that friends should be loyal to each other, but you notice that you often reveal negative things about your friends in gossip with others.  You love your mother, but you continually ignore her pleas for more contact, and contemplation shows you that you also fear her enough to keep you from contact with her.  You think that everyone is equal, including Blacks, but you wouldn’t want your sister to marry one.  Inconsistencies most often reveal ambivalence but sometimes show us ignorance or malevolence that we prefer not to acknowledge.  Seeing these things about ourselves gives us opportunity to clarify our mixed feelings and face up to our prejudices.

If you can see, understand, and accept the parts of yourself that you fear, are ashamed of, or guilty about, then it will allow you to understand what other people are going through, too, without judgment, since everyone struggles to get what he or she wants while also needing to treat others well so as to stay sufficiently in their good graces.  No one is perfect, and all of us always have some inner tensions.  Most of us are afraid of, ashamed of, or guilty about something within us.  This makes us all brothers (or sisters) under the skin!  You won’t have to fear others so much anymore, because we can all (at least theoretically) realize that we are not perfect and never will be and can then basically accept each other better.  This does not mean that “anything goes,” since we all want to be treated with respect and courtesy, but at least we can look for other ways to treat each other well than to continue to hide and fear parts of ourselves.  If self-observation and contemplation help you to reduce your inner conflicts, inconsistencies, and blind spots, then you will feel more inner peace and greater calm and courage in your relationships with others, since you will no longer have to blame either them or yourself for your troubling emotions.

If you are afraid of seeing yourself as “bad” through your observing, ask yourself why you see some parts of yourself as bad.  Whose standards are you using, and why?  Are those standards for who you are supposed to be reasonable?  Are they humane?  It may be time for you to establish your own, more reasonable and humane standards for yourself!  (For more on this see the chapter on standards and expectations in my book How To Feel Good About Yourself:  12 Key Steps To Having Good Self-Esteem, available on-line.)

Another valuable result of contemplation is a chance to gain a different understanding of your place in the universe or in creation.  It is common for seriously contemplating persons to experience a different and expanded sense of the bigger picture of existence.  This often involves a thrilling expansion of awareness, as we perceive things beyond our usual focus on only what is right in front of us (what needs to be done, the pressures we face, how we feel about what someone just said, etc.).  Seeing ourselves as part of a grand and glorious universe can be exciting.  This insight may be integrated with the religious beliefs you already have, or it may stir you to a different view, giving you a sense of awe and reverence for the world.

This new awareness quite often involves a sense of acceptance and love for everything, rather than our more common fearful uncertainty about others and the unknown.  This can engender an exciting, new view of our future and purpose in life.  Others can be seen as wonderful creations (albeit still flawed) and worthy of our interest and care.  We can see ourselves as offering a new and positive way of being in the world, including self-love as well as love for others. 

The challenge for us, as with any inspiring experience, is to make our new-found insights permanent and to have them in our awareness all the time.  This is accomplished by acting differently and not just thinking about your new experience.  Bring that positivity toward yourself to learning greater self-acceptance and self-care.  Act on that positivity toward others by enfolding them in your positive embrace.  Speak to them with interest and concern, rather than keeping your silence until it is totally safe to speak, as you usually do.  Treat them with the same love and concern that you would like to have from them, and your efforts will nudge them toward acting similarly themselves.

Self-awareness and self-knowledge through purposeful observation and contemplation can help you to a number of positive results (above)!  You are urged to explore the possibilities!