Guest post by Nina Lalumia

A friend of mine recently said that the perfect example of an introspective introvert is the hermit who withdraws from society into solitude. I want to explain here why I think this is mistaken…

What’s a Hermit?

When I think of hermits, I think of religious or spiritual hermits: for example, a nun or a monk, or a dervish or a certain type of rabbi. In particular, I think of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), who in his mature years was sometimes drawn to spend several days in a cave. It was here, when he was forty years old, that he reported that the angel Gabriel appeared to him and told him to recite. What he recited at various times during the remainder of his life became the Qur’an—literally, the recitation. In Christianity, there is imagery similar to the Prophet’s cave, for example, the interior castle of St Teresa of Avila. Also, in monasteries, each person has their own private room or cell.

The personality type of a hermit

It’s safe to say that most, if not all, religious or spiritual hermits are introverts, simply because they have a strong preference for spending time alone and in silence or even darkness. They withdraw regularly, and sometimes completely, from the bustling, noisy, talkative world of society. Even if they live together in a monastery or convent, they typically limit speaking to each other only to necessary communication; they refrain from chatting, and sometimes for extended periods they take a vow of complete silence.

But I think it is mistaken to think that they are introspective—that they tend to give their attention to their own personal experience. This is symbolised by the fact that they typically have few if any personal belongings, and by the fact that they wear uniforms or habits. They divest themselves of Personality and become more or less anonymous; often they take on new names, and they typically limit, or even eliminate, contact with their family members. So to a large extent they have no personal experience to reflect on.

So what do religious or spiritual hermits reflect on?

Anyone who has tried to practise meditation knows that when you begin, perhaps by focusing on your breathing, that personal thoughts appear: typically about recent events or things that you have to do in the near future. We are naturally drawn to reflect on our past (either with regret or pleasure) and to speculate about our future (either with fear or hope). But the teachers of meditation tell us, when such personal thoughts come up, to witness them as if from a distance, and then gently re-direct our attention to our breathing or to some other fairly blank object of focus. If we are “successful,” eventually these personal thoughts settle down and perhaps disappear completely. So what is left? In a word, nothing. This is the deeper level of meditation or prayer that many hermits or mystics seek to reach. At this level, there is nothing personal left to reflect on. In this darkness one does not belong to a family, and one has no ethnicity or language or nationality. Some controversial mystics would even say that at this level they have no particular religion or set of beliefs.

What does one think about when one thinks about nothing?

The Muslim philosopher Al-Ghazali explained it as follows. A person has two aspects: first, their body, which is a public object that others can examine with their five senses; and the body itself examines the rest of the world with its own five senses. But then a person also has an inner reality, the capacity to understand and reason; and this activity is not observable to any of the five senses. So also Al-Ghazali suggested that the world as a whole has two aspects: one that we can examine with our five senses—its exterior, superficial aspect, and one that we can only reach by the understanding or intellect—its inner, deep aspect.

So many mystics would agree that what they think about when they think about nothing is the inner, deep aspect of reality—the hidden basis of reality, or perhaps even the Reality itself that some call God or the Higher Power. So the religious or spiritual hermit, the mystic or person who meditates, is an outward-looking introvert—not an introspective introvert. They look outward toward the deeper reality of the world, or perhaps toward Reality itself.

The social contribution of spiritual introverts

Often, spiritual introverts spend time in solitude and then return to society with a contribution: either a spoken or written message, or their own personal example of integrity in the way that they live. Both aspects are present in the way that Susan Cain talks about her grandfather, a rabbi who loved both to study in solitude and to communicate lovingly with others; she is the author of Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. In either way, in their message or in their personal example, one of the contributions that spiritual introverts can make is to show us how to see beneath and beyond our external differences and to see the common core of humanity in us all. For example, this is something that Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi did and that, in the Buddhist tradition, Thich Nhat Hanh does. This contribution seems especially important today, when the emphasis on external differences seems to be on the rise—often with violent consequences.

It is a painful paradox that many of the people who emphasise these differences the most call themselves “religious.” This makes me wish that they would return to the traditions of meditation, prayer or mysticism that the different religions share—each in their own way, but with a common core at the heart…in the human heart, at its introverted best.

Guest Post by Nina Lalumia

The Etymology of ‘Introvert’ and ‘Introspective’

Based on its Latin roots, ‘introverted’ means turned to the inside. Lots of words have the same roots in different combinations. ‘INTRO-duce’ means to lead in; and ‘re-VERT’ means to turn back. Similarly, based on its roots, ‘introspective’ means looking inward (compare to ‘retro-SPECTIVE,’ which means looking backward). So, based on their roots, ‘introverted’ and ‘introspective’ seem to mean pretty much the same thing; therefore it’s not surprising that many people are unclear about the important differences in meaning between them, as we shall explore below…

The Meaning of ‘Introvert’ in Psychology

The psychologist Carl Jung (1875-1961) developed a theory of psychological types, characterized by the tendency of a person to prefer one of two basic attitudes: Introverted or Extraverted (that’s how the word is still spelt in some contexts). On his theory, people employ these attitudes in the way that they gather information (Intuitive or Sensory) and in the way they make decisions (based on Feeling or Thinking). Jung’s theory was developed and modified by Katherine Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Myers. They published an assessment tool in 1944, in order to help women entering the workforce find what kind of work would be “most comfortable and effective” for them. This later became the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which also assesses a person’s general approach to the world: Perceiving or Judging.

The questions in the MBTI test that are used to assess whether a person is introverted, and to what degree, ask people to examine how they behave. Introverts tend to choose the first option in the questions listed below:

  • Do you reflect first and then act after? Do you listen first and then speak—or the opposite? (As an extroverted friend of mine was once described: She shoots first and asks questions later!)
  • Do you pursue in-depth knowledge and understanding of the topics that interest you, or do you gather a wide breadth of knowledge, on a more superficial level?
  • Do you prefer one-to-one conversation on substantial topics, or do you like frequent interaction with many people or in larger groups—again, on a more superficial level?
  • Are you cautious about letting people into your small circle of intimacy, or do you readily accept many people as your “friends”?
  • Do you re-energize yourself by spending time alone, or by spending time with other people?

What it means to be introspective

As its etymology suggests, an introspective person is one who tends to look inward. Of course this doesn’t literally mean that they turn their eyes into their head, like in some horror movie! It means that they tend to give their attention to their own thoughts, feelings and experiences. To give attention to your own experience means to examine how an event affects you directly and personally, rather than looking at it objectively. News reporters are meant to examine what happens objectively, without expressing how it affects them personally. By contrast, an introspective person may be understood as one who is regularly writing their autobiography–either by keeping a journal, or by narrating it to themselves or to others. This is not a bad quality in itself. It does NOT mean that introspective people are necessarily narcissistic or self-centred. But since our attention is limited, it does suggest that introspective people tend to give more attention to their own experience rather than to the world “out there” that we all share.

Introvert and Introspective: Not The Same Thing

A major source of confusion between the words is the conflict that is often found between the questions used in the MBTI test, on the one hand, and common descriptions of what it means to be introverted, on the other–even on the official MBTI site itself! None of the assessment questions above suggests that introverts (the people who prefer the first option in each case) are more introspective than extroverts. We know from the questions that an introverted person has a pattern or behaviour of spending more time alone, but for what reason we cannot know. Is the time spent alone used to look inwards (introspectively)? The test questions do not look at this but yet our general, unclarified understanding of the terms ‘introvert’ and ‘introspective’ lumps the two meanings together. In truth, introverts, as identified by the questions in the MBTI test, may be just as interested in the world and other people as extroverts—but importantly, their interest in the world is expressed through a different mode or style.

The key to understanding this may be found in the use of the word ‘reflect.’ It is often said that introverts like to reflect. But what do they typically reflect on? Importantly, they reflect or look in the “mirror” not necessarily to look at or understand themselves, but to inspect and understand more deeply The World (of which each of us is a small but important part). So don’t get confused by descriptions that suggest that introverts are more introspective than other people: that they direct their energy toward their own inner world, or that they have a strong internal focus, inward toward their own thoughts, feelings and experiences. They may do; or they may not. We don’t know because the questions in the MBTI test themselves do not give us this information.

Introverts who are not Introspective:

One characteristic of introverts is that they generally prefer to spend their free time, and to re-energise themselves, by doing things alone, not with other people. One of the things that an introvert might do in his or her alone-time is read a book. But when a person reads a book, they are not being introspective: they are not looking inward at themselves. They are learning about the world. This is true even if they are reading fiction. The best fiction represents in a concentrated way issues that real people face in the real world. 

Introverts who are Introspective

An example of an introspective introvert is someone who looks inward gathering information from life experiences in order to learn or grow through them. By taking time to quietly contemplate life, an introspective introvert increases their understanding of the world through the lens of their own experience. So if such a person does in fact write an autobiography, or publish their journals, by reading such works we can learn a lot about the world…as it appeared to them.

You may be introverted but not recognise it

Due to a blurry understanding of the meaning of ‘introvert,’ which often sees it as the same thing as being introspective, introverted people don’t always recognise or accept their introverted natures. So just because you are not introspective, DO NOT rule out the possibility that you may be introverted. As an introvert, you may be just as interested in other people and in understanding the world as extroverts are—only in a different mode or style. Actually, true introspection is something that most of us have to work hard to learn: to become aware of the relationships between our thought-processes, our emotions, and our behaviour. We have to learn this skill if we want to identify unhealthy patterns, make changes and get over the obstacles that are holding us back.