You will know the saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) that, he who knows his self, knows his Lord. You can of course also read this “he” as “she” because self-reflection is useful to all. It requires some practice, because we have the inclination to cover our own acts and thoughts and feelings with a subjective veil and then we do not really look at such things. That is also why it is useful to have a spiritual guide who serves as a mirror to us. An intelligent enemy is also helpful.

Hazrat Bulleh Shah has said:

You read to become all-knowing,
But you never read your self.

I’ve today read an article dealing with self-reflection. I’m subscribed to a management site and today’s article started with the well-known Greek advice “Know thyself!” It continues by stating that wisdom and success start with knowledge about your own strengths and weaknesses. Self-knowledge is possible because of the human ability to reflect on our own behaviour and the effect thereof. The article also deals with the mechanisms that make it difficult to look in the mirror of your own self. It ends with some tools to overcome these difficulties.

Reflection on the self deals with reflecting on your own thoughts, acts, feelings, and the effects thereof. It helps to increase your knowledge about yourself and to act more effectively in the future. There are 3 moments to reflect:

1. In advance of an event
2. During the event
3. Afterwards.

ad 1. Anticipating reflection implies that you think about how you can or will react when a certain situation will take place in the future.

ad 2. Reflection in action is the most challenging type of self-reflection because it asks of you an immediate switch of perspective. You need to be involved because you’re part of the situation, and at the same time you are taking some distance to investigate your response to the situation.

ad 3. Reflection on action, i.e. to reflect later on, is the most common type of self-reflection, because then there is the time and the calmness to look back.

Neurological research (Swaab) has shown that our brains are more or less completely developed at an age of about 20 years. Our brains are then able to deal with complex processes. The brain at that time has become an efficient system and enables us to concentrate better. We are more and more able to get a helicopter view, which implies the ability to rise above the specifics of a particular situation and to see it in its overall context and environment. It is the ability not only to see the forest for the trees, but it also the ability to see the big picture without losing sight of the details and their implications. Although it is thus more difficult to practice self-reflection at a young age, parents still can influence their children regarding this ability.


Parents can do so by asking questions to their children about their behaviour, feelings and the effects thereof. When you are used to these things at an early age, then it is probable that later on it is easier to practice self-reflection.

It is helpful when you are able to recognize and to deal with your own emotions and the ones of others, in short when you’ve got a high emotional intelligence. Then you are better able to give a meaning to your own emotions and to see which is the effect of your behaviour on others.

Have a look at Kolb’s learning styles and try to determine what your learning style is. It also influences the way you best practice self-reflection:

Self-reflection of course can be used in daily life. Idries Shah in his Reflections (p. 3) quotes from the Daily Mail, and ends by saying:

“From this story could be extracted all kinds of morals and teachings. But it is quoted here because it is absolutely true.”

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, a certain building was infested by mice. The people in charge decided to kill them. One night they put down mouse-killing poison. But the next morning the poison had been eaten.

‘”We shall change the type of poison,” the people said, and they made another attempt. But the second lethal dose the mice also ate happily, and left signs that they were thriving on their new diet. It was decided to use old-fashioned spring-operated mousetraps. These were baited with succulent cheese to tempt the poison-proof mice. But the mice refused to touch the cheese.

One of the mouse-catchers now had an inspiration. He thickly coated the cheese in the traps with poison. “Perhaps the mice have developed a liking for poison; it may even be doing them good,” he reasoned.

The new plan was put into operation late one evening. The following morning the spring-traps were full of strong and healthy mice.

Shaykh Harith al-Muhasibi considers reflection to be one of the most important ‘works of the heart.’ It is a form of inward service by which you are strengthened for outward service. In solitary reflection is found the key to wisdom. The shaykh goes so far as to say that reflection leads to all good. It helps you to know if an act is good or not, to know which of two duties comes first and to choose aright between them. Reflection for a single hour, he says, is better than service by good works for a whole year. Remembrance and meditation are linked up with reflection and self-examination.

The shaykh was given the title of al-Muhasibi because of his practice of frequent self-examination. He used to examine (hasab) himself when in a state of recollection of God. It was said also, in explanation of his name, that he did not pronounce a single word without having reflected thoroughly on it. The shaykh is spoken of as a contemplative (mushahid), given to meditation (muraqib), but always ready to help others, being a good and loyal friend. Someone recited these verses in his presence:

I weep in exile, as the eye of a stranger weeps,
I shall not grieve on the day when I depart from this abode,
For strange it is that I should have deserted
My native land, the home of my Beloved.

When the shaykh heard these lines, he rose and was moved to tears. He himself then recited:

Fear is most fitting for the sinner
And grief when he calls upon God,
But love is seemly for the obedient
And him who is pure from defilement,
While strong yearning belongs to the elect
And the friends of God,
According to those who are wise.

As you can see there is more to him than dry asceticism. He, in fact, has described the complete Sufi path.

There is another anecdote showing how he reflected upon his meeting a young dervish who was less learned than himself, but who possessed a greater spiritual insight. This story has been told by shaykh al-Muhasibi himself. It shows how he learned humility from a young dervish who was less learned than himself, but who possessed a greater spiritual insight.

Shaykh al-Muhasibi had written a book about ma’rifa (deep inward knowledge of God; gnosis). He was much pleased with the book, and while he was considering it with approval, there was a knock at the door. A young dervish came in, greeted him and asked him: “Is deep inward knowledge of God a duty towards God, incumbent upon man or is it a right which man can claim from God?” The shaykh answered: “It is a duty towards God, which is incumbent upon man.”

The dervish said: “It would be unjust of Him to veil it from him, whose duty it is.” The shaykh remarked: “Yes, it is a right, which man can claim from God.” The dervish responded: “He is too just to do men wrong,” and rose and saluted shaykh al-Muhasibi and took his departure. Shaykh al-Muhasibi, feeling his lack of qualifications for dealing with the subject, burnt the book he had written, and abandoned his intention of writing on the subject, saying: “After this I am not prepared to speak of deep inward knowledge of God.”

There exists a commentary of shaykh Fariduddin ‘Attar on the dilemma thus presented by shaykh al-Muhasibi. He makes it clear that the reason why the shaykh destroyed his book and gave up his intention was that, if it is asserted that the servant gains gnosis by himself and by his own effort can attain to it, then it can be claimed by him and this is not lawful (since it is a gift and grace from God and no one can secure it by his or her own unaided striving). On the other hand, to say that the servant has a right to gnosis and that it is due to him is equally unlawful, for man can have no claim upon God.

Shaykh Fariduddin ‘Attar feels that shaykh al-Muhasibi was so perplexed by the dilemma that he abandoned the writing of the book, and he continues by stating that what God requires from his servant He will bestow upon him of His grace, but the servant cannot demand it as a right. Shaykh Fariduddin ‘Attar suggests further that gnosis is a duty incumbent upon the servant, in the sense that since God gives him that grace, it is for him also to do his part. Of the illumination given to him, he must make the fullest use and, being granted the knowledge of God, must act in accordance with that knowledge. Shaykh Fariduddin ‘Attar adds: “God knows which explanation is right.”

The event of the meeting of shaykh al-Muhasibi with the dervish took perhaps place in his early manhood. Possibly out of a more mature experience shaykh al-Muhasibi did write a book on gnosis which is extant. It is called The Exposition of Gnosis and the Bestowal of Good Counsel, which is however also known as the Book of Self-Examination (Kitab Muhasabat al-Nofus).

There are 4 mechanisms which block self-reflection:

1. The attitude of stating: “I cannot help it. This is how I am…”
2. The attitude of stating: “I cannot help it. The fault lies with someone else…”
3. The attitude of stating: “I cannot help it. The circumstances have caused this…”
4. The attitude of stating: “I don’t want to think about it anymore…”

Do you recognize these pitfalls? Later on the question will be answered how to deal with these 4 mechanisms, but the first step is to recognize the 4 mechanisms. How else is it possible for you to get motivated and have the strength to change your behaviour?

As for the first of the four pitfalls, i.e. that you state that this is the way you are, and that you thus imply that you cannot change, then try this: Look at yourself in a similar way you look at others. This makes it necessary to look in a critical and honest way at yourself. Reflect on what you do and see what is possible for you by making use of the thought that you can also do it in a different way. This is not easy. You need quite some practice. What you see as reality is an illusion. Life is a dream.

A seeker from the West went to an Asian Sufi khanaqah. He was given a separate place to stay. Day after day he spent in solitary meditation. He was of the opinion that he was seen as ‘another superficial westerner with a consumer mentality towards the inner path.’ On the fourth day he did not like to do his practices. He felt more like sleeping. When he was fast asleep, there was a knock at his door. It was the murshid who had just returned from a journey. When this Sufi saw his guest waking from sleep, he excused himself and left. The western seeker felt unhappy, because he did not like it that he had given a sleepy impression.

A few more days passed, and then he was invited to the activities of the dervishes as well. He had to leave after a few months. The Sufi shaykh then asked him to come, and gave him a present. It was a poem in beautiful Persian calligraphy. After his return to Europe the traveller had the poem translated. He was told that it contained the spiritual motto of the Sufi khanaqah he had visited:

When you’re tired and feel like sleeping, then you should sleep.

The second of the four pitfalls mentioned earlier lies in the fact that you don’t attribute a mistake to yourself, but you blame others for it. When you are learning French, and your results are not up to the mark, you claim that it is not your fault, but the fault of your teacher. This is called negative attribution. You’ll of course not learn to speak better French, by pointing out mistakes of your teacher. It is hard or even impossible to change him. It is much easier to try to change your own learning habits. It is difficult to be honest with yourself, because blaming others has become the habit, and because you tend to be too forgiving to yourself. It is also difficult for you to know what you really think in this respect. A defence mechanism is operative, and your own thoughts get mixed with all kinds of other thoughts.

It so happens that years ago we were walking in the streets of Venice. Venice, next to many waterways, also has streets. We stopped in front of a bookshop, and we noticed a book with a traffic sign in the Arabic language. Because of poor knowledge of this language, it took some time to read it: Qiff. Qiff means stop.

There is a Sufi exercise wherein the teacher suddenly shouts qiff to his murids who may be active in all kinds of exercises. In other traditions the one leading a meditation may expectantly strike the floor with a wooden stick, thus producing a loud sound. The idea is (among other things, because it can also be a wake-up call) that the murids then reflect on the thoughts they have at this very moment. They may thus become witnesses how their attention is being divided among different subjects.

By looking at your own role and the effect thereof on others, you can overcome the mechanism of blaming others. Admit what you really think, and reflect on your own convictions. In this way you slowly get more and more insight in what you do and what effect this has on others. By changing the proper aspects in yourself your mastery of the French language, may peut-être improve.

The third pitfall is that you blame your personal failings on the circumstances or to others. You thus avoid looking into the mirror or your self. This mechanism is called the ‘self-serving bias.’ People with an external locus of control use this mechanism often. In case you are someone with an external locus of control, then you are more likely to believe that your fate is determined by chance or outside forces that are beyond their own personal control. This strategy can be healthy sometimes, like when dealing with failure or disaster, but can also be harmful in that it can lead to feelings of helplessness and loss of personal control. When you are like this, instead of feeling more independent, then your inclination for self-reflection will be minimal.

It is also not helpful that there is a greater need to reflect when you have problematic experiences. These might be precisely the situations you want to forget and to ignore as soon as possible.

How to overcome the above pitfall? Try to assess what is your circle of influence; try to answer the question how to increase your being able to influence the circumstances and try to learn what you need to in order to be able to do it.

During your travel on the Sufi path your power of discernment is slowly increasing. You may learn more about what are the right circumstances to act or to do nothing. This is connected with your increasing knowledge about, and awareness of, the law of the right place, the right time and the right people.

Someone had a dream about meeting the most important man of Madrid. He met him in his dream in the centre of this city. This dream took place in the first part of the night. A few days later he travelled to Madrid and went to the city centre. He then met the person of his dreams, but he only saw a young child. He had met the right person; he had gone to the right place; but the time was wrong. He had come 40 years too early.

Pitfall number four is the attitude that you don’t want to think about ‘it’ anymore. In order to overcome this pitfall, you should organize your own feedback. Ask someone else to reflect together with you about what just has taken place. Ask this person to mention what was positive in what you did and what was less positive. When you may hear that you should have shown more understanding for the point of view of a third person, then continue asking questions. You may ask what is exactly meant by that and – after receiving a reply – ask how to do it

Other people can thus help you and serve as a useful mirror to you. They may assist you in overcoming your personal blind spots. It is said in the ahadith that the believer (mu’min) is the mirror for the believer. You may also reflect on the fact that one of the divine names is al-Mu’min. Meister Eckhart writes:

“The soul contemplates itself in the mirror of divinity. God Himself is the mirror, which He conceals from whom He will, and uncovers to whom He will. The more the soul is able to transcend all words, the more it approaches the mirror. In this mirror union occurs as pure undivided like-ness.”

The subject is self-reflection. A mirror is a useful tool in this respect. A mirror is – according to Sidi Titus Burckhardt – also “the most immediate symbol of spiritual contemplation, and indeed of knowledge (gnosis) in general, for it portrays the union of subject and object.” Reflection and self-reflection become more difficult when passions obscure the mirror. It becomes covered over, as if with dust. When false thoughts, under the direction of your spiritual guide, are overcome, they cease to proclaim themselves. It is like the polishing of a mirror. The best tool to do this polishing is the practice of the remembrance of God.

You need discipline for self-reflection. You need to act and you need inward peace. Some dissatisfaction about your own behaviour may also be helpful. Some people make use of a diary to note down their experiences. Look back at the end of the day or at the end of the week. What do you notice? What do you want to do with this insight? And in case this is too difficult for you, ask someone else to help you.

Make up your account, before your account is made up!