The Practice of Retrospection

Retrospection is contemplation of the past. Pythagoras of Samos (570-495 B.C.), the first to be called a “philosopher” (i.e. “lover of wisdom”), recommended the following exercise of retrospection before going to sleep:
     "Never suffer sleep to close thy eyelids, after thy going to bed,
Till thou hast examined by thy reason all thy actions of the day.
Wherein have I done amiss? What have I done? What have I omitted that I ought to have done?
If in this examination thou find that thou hast done amiss, reprimand thyself severely for it;
And if thou hast done any good, rejoice.
Practice thoroughly all these things; meditate on them well; thou oughtest to love them with all thy heart.
'Tis they that will put thee in the way of divine virtue." 
(Golden Verses of Pythagoras, 40-46)

After Pythagoras, the Greek Stoic philosophers recommended similar practices. Epicteus (c. 50-135 A.D.) wrote:

     "Let sleep not come upon thy languid eyes Before each daily action thou hast scann'd; What's done amiss, what done, what left undone; From first to last examine all, and then Blame what is wrong in what is right rejoice."
(Epicteus, Discourses, 3.1)

Seneca the Younger (c. 4 B.C. - 65 A.D.) wrote about Quintus Sextius, a Roman philosopher whose philosophy combined Pythagorean and Stoic thought:

     "When the day was over and he had retired to his nightly rest, he would put these questions to his soul: "What bad habit have you cured to- day? What fault have you resisted? In what respect are you better?" Anger will cease and become more controllable if it finds that it must appear before a judge every day. Can anything be more excellent than this practice of thoroughly sifting the whole day? And how delightful the sleep that follows this self- examination - how tranquil it is, how deep and untroubled, when the soul has either praised or admonished itself, and when this secret examiner and critic of self has given report of its own character! I avail myself of this privilege, and every day I plead my cause before the bar of self. When the light has been removed from sight, and my wife, long aware of my habit, has become silent, I scan the whole of my day and retrace all my deeds and words. I conceal nothing from myself, I omit nothing. For why should I shrink from any of my mistakes, when I may commune thus with myself?

     "See that you never do that again; I will pardon you this time. In that dispute, you spoke too offensively; after this don't have encounters with ignorant people; those who have never learned do not want to learn. You reproved that man more frankly than you ought, and consequently you have, not so much mended him as offended him. In the future, consider not only the truth of what you say, but also whether the man to whom you are speaking can endure the truth." 
(Seneca, On Anger)

Why is retrospection helpful?
The most obvious purpose of retrospection is ethical perfection.

Retrospection gives us more control of ourselves. As Seneca points out, we will have more control of our actions if we know we will review them every day. We will also become more mindful of our actions. Retrospection prepares the mind for mindfulness.

The practice of retrospection trains the mind to identify with observer of the thoughts, emotions, and physical impulses, rather than feeling victim to them.

Among the Pythagoreans, retrospection also served the purpose of training the memory. Pythagoras was said to be able to recall in backward sequence everything he had done and said throughout his day, even for several days.


During our waking hours, we engage in many activities and interactions, and we respond to them in a number of ways. Sometimes we respond with the rational, intellectual mind. Other times we are moved by our emotions or by the instinctual impulses of the physical body. A nightly exercise of retrospection could include questioning whether we acted out of the mind, emotions, or body in each event or interaction.


Imagination and the Use of Imagery in Hypnosis

Before the Scottish physician James Braid coined the terms "hypnosis" and "hypnotism", the phenomena of hypnosis belonged to the fields of magnetism and Mesmerism. Magnetists and Mesmerists believed that an invisible universal fluid was responsible for their cures. In 1784 a commission investigating Mesmer stated that the cures were due to the imagination, not to magnetism. In response to criticisms, one of Mesmer's pupils, Charles d'Elson, wrote, "If Mesmer had no other secret than that he has been able to make the imagination exert an influence upon health, would he not still be a wonder doctor? If treatment by the use of the imagination is the best treatment, why do we not make use of it?"[1]

Many people suffer from problems that are caused by the imagination. For example, the person with a fear of flying imagines the small space or turbulence, or, as Kroger describes in Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, the example of a person who lacks confidence in public speaking:

"When in bed at night, he 'sees' himself walking up to the rostrum and 'hears' himself delivering his address. The mere thought of the future talk causes palpitation, sighing, holding of the breath and a panicky feeling. Thus, the imagination produces the same effects as if the speaker were in front of the audience. This process is referred to as sensory imagery. If his imagination is negatively 'programmed' in this manner, time after time, night after night, it is only natural that he will develop anxiety when he gets up to speak. Continually thinking negative, harmful and destructive thoughts eventually leads to their realization because of expectation and belief that they will happen. Having an idea of an action often results in that action."

The Law of Reversed Effect
Most people try to assert will power to solve their problems, but the Law of Reversed Effect says that the harder one tries to do something, the less chance there is of success.[2] For example: the insomniac who makes a real effort to sleep (even though sleep cannot occur from effort), or the smoker who tries to stop by admonishing herself every time she smokes a cigarette. In hypnotherapy, more effective than the suggestion "You do not smoke" is the imagery of increased breath capacity, healthier skin, or greater peace of mind.

More than words
The unconscious responds more readily to the imagination than to hypnotic suggestions. When hypnotic suggestions are used, their greatest effect is not in their literal meanings, but in the imagined thoughts they produce. Words and phrases can produce powerful imagery, so a thoughtful hypnotist will be sensitive to the imagery that certain words may trigger in the imagination. Part of the task of the hypnotist is to determine what words are cues for specific imagery for the hypnotic subject.

Make it personal
Imagination can be reproductive (i.e. reproducing a previous experience or idea) or productive/constructive (creating something new). When using imagery in hypnotherapy, the subject's own recollections are more impactful than a newly created image. For example, to help someone increase confidence in public speaking, it is more effective to use his actual memories of times when he felt confident (in speaking or otherwise) than to describe an idealized image to which he cannot relate from personal experience. His own personal experiences are not forced on him, so he will accept them more readily.

Types of imagery
Imagination can be volitional (voluntary) or receptive (involuntary). Hypnotherapy and self-hypnosis can use both types. With receptive imagery, the images come without conscious effort. An example of using receptive imagery is to establish a purpose for entering hypnosis (ex: to remember something or to solve a problem), and then to observe passively what imagery occurs on its own, without exerting conscious effort.

Tips for using imagery:

- Close your eyes.

- Pay attention to details: colors, shapes, faces, attire, landscape, sounds, feelings, etc.

- Include all five senses. Imagination can be visual, auditory, olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste), and/or tactile (physical sensation).

- Be patient. Don't rush it or make hard work of it.

- If you are using volitional imagery, maintain a passive attitude when the mind wanders from the subject of focus, and return to it without judgment or frustration.

- Everyone already has the ability to imagine, so instead of waiting for something unusual or remarkable to happen, approach imagining as an opportunity to discern more closely how your imagination operates.

[1] Goldsmith, M. L. (1934). Franz Anton Mesmer; a history of mesmerism. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc.

[2] Kroger, William S. (1963). Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott.