Been doing alot self observation lately, the internal variety that is taught in Buddhist philosophy, not the kind that involves long periods of gazing into the mirror, although I'll admit to doing a bit of that also. After you've done this for any length of time you begin to notice the habitual patterns that arise, the conditioned responses that automatically occur without any effort or will on your part. In my experience - and I'd venture to say that the experience is universal - this is a guaranteed way to discover some very unsavory aspects of yourself. When you begin to look, you will probably not like what you see.
The practice of sustained self observation is only useful under the condition that one is willing to be brutally honest with ones self. To whatever extent possible you have to view things as a disinterested third party; it's impossible to do this fully but you do what you can.
One of the things I have noticed in myself is the knee-jerk tendency to be critical of people and situations. It's just before the moment where I have the ability to give conscious thought to what's occuring, it just arises instantaneously without me having any say in the matter. It doesn't happen 100% of the time, but it happens more frequently than makes sense. I've questioned where this tendency comes from or what might explain it, and though I can't say for certain, I'm thinking that alot of it has to do with being a part of a culture that places such an emphasis on competitiveness and the pursuit of perfection and achievement. We are all products of our culture and being one up or somehow better than the other guy is a huge part of ours.
Whatever the reason for this snap criticism, the fact is that it is there. As part of this process of constant (or as much as possible) self observation I've developed an ability to catch myself in the act and though at first it was a little disturbing, it has now become amusing. I've gone just past the stage of judging myself for being judgemental and I when I see it arising I almost laugh outloud at myself for being so mechanical and predictable.
I have to qualify all of this by saying that I have by no means overcome this nasty little feature of "my" personality (the words "I" and "my" should probably always be in quotes but that would start to appear a little ridiculous). However, as part of doing this something more positive has come out of it as of late, and that is that immediately after the act of recognition, and equally as effortless, feelings of intense compassion and empathy spring up. So the funny little process goes from instant judgement or criticism, to instant feelings of warmth and kinship towards the individual or situation in question. Funny.
The fact of the matter is that we are all up against a great deal in this life. The primordial obstacle is the exact same for all of us although it manifests itself in a different ways, whether it be fear, judgementalness, arrogance, low-self esteem or whatever. Some of us eat or drink too much. Some of us criticize too much. Some of us are overly concerned with our own little selves at the expense of others in our life. Some of us self destruct and others destruct in a more outward fashion, taking others down with them. Pick your poison; this is how it is.
An expanding awareness seems to offer some remedy to the situation, but only in conjuction with other things. A sustained effort at intense self-awareness and self-honesty, it would seem, necissitates intense self-compassion also. Otherwise an enormous amount of self-criticism and self-pity are sure to follow, both of which are a form of violence and narcissism in their own right.
In writing this I'm thinking of some lyrics from Bob Dylan, something like:
"My back is to the sun, because the light is too intense; I can see what everybody in the world is up against..."
Yep, it's like that.