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The term “navel gazing” is used to refer to intense self-reflection, often with the implication that the individual doing the gazing is self-absorbed or that he or she is too focused on a single issue, at the cost of ignoring other important issues. Being accused of navel gazing isn't necessarily a bad thing; sometimes a little bit of contemplation can be a productive pursuit, especially when someone is trying to reach a decision about something important. In addition to being used to refer to individuals, the term is sometimes evoked in references to groups or organizations, as in “the newspaper's navel gazing in the op-ed pages got to be a bit too dull for me, so I canceled my subscription.”
References to navel gazing appear to have emerged from observation of certain religious ascetics; observers believed that some religious practitioners were staring at their navels to enter deep meditative reveries. It is certainly true that some meditation poses place people in a prime position for this process, and contemplating one's own navel could have powerful connotations in religions where people view the navel as the center of life or as an energy source. A specific term has even been invented to describe religious navel gazing: “omphaloskepsis,” from the Greek words for “navel” and “inquiry.”
Many cultures, including the Greeks, associate tremendous power with the navel. Obviously, the navel is a connection to the life-force of one's mother, through the umbilical cord, so in some cultures, it is viewed as a center or starting point. In several societies, people have specified particular sites as the “Navel of the World,” ranging from Delphi to Easter Island. These sites were believed to have religious significance as centers of culture and religion for members of these societies.
In the 1900s, “navel gazing” began to take on the additional meaning of being used to refer to people who seemed extremely self-absorbed or unaware of their surroundings because they were too focused on their own issues. In this sense, the term is generally meant to be derogatory, implying that someone needs to open his or her awareness a bit to think beyond the current situation, or to consider others. In this sense, navel gazing is viewed as rather self indulgent.
I was always curious about this! I kind of pictured literally gazing at one's navel and assumed it had something to do with contemplation or self absorption. Looks like I was right. Very interesting points about the religious and cultural origins.