We humans are in the extraordinary position of being able to study ourselves.
Across many fields of science people are learning how the mind and body function. Humans have done a lot of research in physiology, biology, chemistry, psychology, etc.
But studying the self is not a pursuit solely for scientists in lab coats with advanced degrees. We all can, we all need, to study our own selves.
You are perfectly capable of observing your direct experience and learning about yourself, and you damn well should do it!
We can reflect on the workings of our own minds. We can become aware of patterns in our thoughts and emotions. We can think about how our actions effect others. We can consider the emotions and values of others through empathy and compassion. We can connect the dots when we eat something shitty and then feel shitty a half hour later.
We can attempt to change a habit, fail, and then observe what made things difficult for us. We can catch ourselves reacting to a situation in a way that surprises us, and ponder how there is a subconscious process driving our reaction. We can learn about our musculoskeletal system by trying a yoga posture one way and feeling pain, then trying it a different way and feeling good.
There are infinite worlds to investigate inside of you. You are an endless territory. The horizon of the self recedes forever no matter how much ground you cover. Born too late to explore the earth, too early to explore the universe, but just in time to explore yourself.
Science of the Self
So what do I even mean by “study ourselves”?
What I mean is applying a scientific lens to our experience. We look at ourselves as something to be learned from — as something to be studied.
We observe our thoughts, emotions, sensations, perceptions, memories, behaviors, habits, and whatever else is relevant to our experience. We form hypotheses‘ about what changes may be helpful to apply in our lives. We experiment with these changes to see if they are effective. We do our best to objectively analyze the results.
Essentially, we choose an aspect of our lives to study and then treat that part of life like a science experiment.
For example, I needed to undergo many failed experiments before I finally established a consistent yoga routine.
I struggled with many aspects of forming this habit, and I won’t talk about every struggle here. What’s important is that the key field of experimentation was the timing of my routine.
At first I told myself I would do yoga every day, but I didn’t set a specific time of day to do it. I just did it when I felt like it. This inconsistency of timing would cause me to miss a day here and there, then several days in a row, and then a whole week!
I discovered I needed to do yoga at the same time every day or it wouldn’t stay a habit. So I decided to try it out in the afternoon. I thought it would be a good re-energizer after finishing my college classes and work.
But often in the afternoon I’d be too tired and would not find the motivation. The same cycle of slipping out of the habit would happen again.
Finally, I decided to do yoga every morning as soon as I woke up. This worked. I am a morning person and have my best energy right as I get out of bed. I now know that any habit I consider a priority should be done in the morning, because that’s the only time I’m guaranteed to do it.
After actually committing to this yoga habit consistently, I realized why I had struggled with it. I had known all along that morning was my best time of day. I had known all along that morning was the best time to do yoga.
But up until this point, for pretty much my entire life, my mornings were always a time of lazy relaxation. Essentially a time for sitting around until the responsibilities of the day began. Usually I would watch TV, use the computer, or otherwise pass time doing nothing of consequence.
I had never used my mornings as action-taking time.
So there was a lot of internal inertia to overcome. After using my mornings as time to do nothing for so long, I had become adjusted to my mornings being like this. Trying to create a morning habit that took effort disrupted my deeply-set routine, and this was psychologically uncomfortable.
To avoid the discomfort associated with the change, I kept putting off doing the thing I knew I needed to do. I kept finding ways to not do yoga in the morning.
I was only able to really nail the yoga habit when I ripped off the band-aid and started doing it in the morning. When I made the decision to do the thing I was avoiding.
But I could only do that after failing a few times. I had to undertake some failed experiments and learn some stuff.
To get this habit down I had to study several different parts of myself. I needed to observe how I behaved when my routine was fixed versus loose. I needed to observe how my energy level related to the time of day. I needed to observe how my motivation related to my energy level and the structuring of my routine. And I needed to try a new experiment following every new observation.
This process of self-study helped me learn what I needed to know about myself in order to firmly root my healthy habit.
The Examined Life and Human Development
We all need to study ourselves because it is by far the most effective way to facilitate personal development.
Personal development is the movement toward our holistic potential. It is striving to better ourselves across many dimensions of human life and capability.
Humanity needs more people functioning at their optimal potential. To begin addressing our enormous issues we need people who are physically and energetically healthy. We need people who are sensitive and emotionally intelligent. We need people who are smart and creative. We need people who are socially responsible and compassionate. The list goes on…
I don’t believe we ever perfect ourselves. We can’t expect perfect people. But we absolutely need people who are growing. Our species needs you and I to strive toward growth.
If you and I grow in any of life’s frontiers we can be more helpful to the world. And likely, we’ll also be happier people.
Studying yourself helps you grow by providing you with the knowledge you need to effectively enact change in your life.
When you study yourself you expand your self-knowledge. You learn about yourself. You widen your self-awareness. I mean, that just makes sense. Not that hard to figure out…
What you may not have considered, though, is the benefit of applying that self-knowledge.
If you want to change yourself for the better the best possible knowledge to have is self-knowledge.
If you want to make informed decisions about buying a car, you should have some knowledge about the type of car you’d like to buy. If you want to make informed decisions about changing yourself, you should have some knowledge about the self you’d like to change.
The more you learn about yourself the better you will be at growing on purpose. With excellent self-awareness you will know how to approach your endeavors of self-development.
Through self-study you will come to know your strengths and weaknesses more intimately. This will help you prepare to take advantage of those strengths and set up supports for those weaknesses.
I discovered my extra motivation early in the morning was a strength and took advantage of that. I discovered that I do poorly keeping up with habits without enough structure, so I had to do yoga at the same time each morning.
Go learn about yourself! You’ll be a lot better at doing what you want to do with this life :)
Sounds cool bro. Where do I start?
Maybe you’re already thinking about an area of your life you’d like to start studying. If that’s the case, go do that one. If you’re already feeling drawn to something then that direction will likely be fruitful for you.
If not, here are my suggestions about where to begin:
Mindfulness meditation practice is the best way I know to study yourself. In my life it laid the most important foundations for self-study, and is still my most powerful tool for self-study.
Mindfulness meditation is about non-judgmentally paying attention to your experience in the present moment.
This practice teaches you the art of watching your breath, body, thoughts, emotions, senses, and whatever else as they pass through consciousness without judging them according to your normal criteria. When you are less judgmental of yourself, you can be more objective about yourself. I can’t think of a better way to hone your self-study skills.
Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
If you’re interested in starting a mindfulness meditation practice, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Wherever You Go, There You Are is a great introduction. Jon describes the essence of mindfulness more lucidly than I thought possible.
Sensory and Physical Awareness
Cultivating awareness of the body is another potent form of self-study. Learning to pay deep attention to your physical self gives you an acute and vibrant connection to the world of sensations and emotions.
Your body is home to so much of your moment-to-moment experience. We usually do not recognize the significant influence our state-of-body has on our moods, thoughts, and behaviors.
A lot of life experience is primed by the functioning of the body. What goes on in the body lies underneath what goes on in the mind. We are often unconsciously directed by physical experiences that we are unaware we are even having.
Starting a daily yoga practice is my top recommendation for connecting with and learning from your body. I’d also suggest checking out The Feldenkrais Method, as well as practicing mindfulness meditation with physical sensations as your object of focus.
Kripalu Yoga: A Guide to Practice On and Off the Mat by Richard Faulds
Kripalu Yoga: A Guide to Practice On and Off the Mat is an incredible resource for starting your own yoga practice. It gives clear directions on how a beginner can design their own routine, explains everything you need to know about basic yoga posture technique, and goes into yoga’s larger philosophy and lifestyle practice.
Examining Your Habits
Finally, studying your habits can be absolutely transformative. Habit is such a compelling force in life, and understanding how it functions is crucial to any form of success.
Learning about what you do repetitively with your life, and why you continue to do it, will give you some serious perspective on yourself. As you go deeper, and see why certain habits stick and others don’t, you’ll come to know how you can re-wire the habits in your life. This gives you the power to take the reins of your life.
A few months ago I began subscribing to Leo Babauta’s habit change program. It has been absolutely the bomb. I’ve learned and changed so much in so little time. I can’t recommend it enough.
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
If you want to learn about the science of habits and habit change, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg is the must-read. Backed by the most solid science, but told through illuminating real-life stories, you won’t find a better book for understanding how habits work.
Go Do It Already!
I’ve told you enough. You know everything you need to know. Go start studying yourself!