On the Art of Reflection: Or, After Guatemala

“My action item when I get back home from Central America is to force myself to reflect,” I had triumphantly shared to the Delegation group in our last wrap up reflection session right before my early morning departure from Guatemala City. But in my mind, as I sit on the flight back to LAX, I have self doubt.

I had explained to the group that my goal was limited to reflection because I hardly had that reflective time during the trip. Maybe by digging deeper into my own experiences I can produce meaningful understanding, thereby having impactful sharing. Plus, I elected to take up the role of (un)official photographer and videographer.

My action item seemed so inconsequential in comparison to what I had internalized as the actions required of me. How do I reconcile those two places I feel I am caught between? The place where I know that I need to do more then reflect, but at the same time, I feel paralyzed by my inability to have reflected. How do I get from the act of reflection, to intentional action? I hope to do reflect on that thought process here in this blog post.

But before you go on check out some background on the Root Causes Delegation here as well as my preparation for the trip here.

Deflecting the Task of Reflection

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While I was happy to volunteer for those duties, it followed a tried and successful deflection. Keeping busy doing something is easier for me then the harder job of making sense of what I experienced. I came face to face with this possibility that volunteering might be a form of deflection on this trip, when visiting the Casa di Migrante in Gautemala City, I heard an incredibly gruesome story of a fourteen year old migrants harrowing story. The story was so disturbing that I stopped doing what I was doing and began to pack and unpack stuff just to not allow myself to let the story sink in to my psyche.

This was an intense story where I got to experience first hand my knee-jerk reaction. It got me thinking to the more subtle behaviors I may employ without being conscious of my behavior. I wanted to see the world, I wanted to get my questions answered, and while I asked questions, and I wanted to learn from outside of my experiences in the United States. Traveling to Central America, getting my questions answered, and experiencing people and culture first had been an incredible blessing, even if and when I felt challenged by it. The thing was taking pictures allowed me to become part of the background, when I felt most challenged. Thats what photography is about, a photographer stands in the background, not completely part of the scene but not completely removed. In a sort of borderland, which appears to be a constant narrative to my life.

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Its not to say that I am a bad photographer, nor is it to say that there aren’t skills and benefits to this task, or that I didn’t offer something to the group, and definitely not to suggest that I was removed from the delegation and folks we met with. In fact, at times I felt like I was in the center of things because of what I was doing and had a responsibility for doing things right. I just feel that I need to call myself out, and challenge my comfortability mechanism in this post because I believe that we need to be critical with ourselves, especially since I don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past.

I did this act of deflection once before, on my trip to Pakistan in 2008. I learned and experienced a lot, yet when I got back, I got back into the forward flow of my life and work. Even if I desired to process my experience, I let go of it because the forward moment was easier to flow with. The reality then was that I was grieving; I didn’t want to remember everything, I didn’t want to look at the bittersweet memories from my trip to Pakistan.

They are still painful. I lost an Aunt to cancer (here), something that could have been treated had it not been misdiagnosed. I had hung out with family members, cousins, after years of only hearing their names and stories. Those were good memories. All of it, however, was tinged with death. It was easier to busy myself then to remember. And I fear that this is the pattern that has developed since then, its easier to get back into the forward movement of life then to reflect and remember deeply on the past. I am not the only one that does this, but I acknowledge it here because I intend to change.

A Divine Mandate to Reflect

In Central America I ran into lots of heartache, loss, pain, and enough suffering to rise up to the heavens an escalator for people on the receiving end of that suffering. Those are all things I would rather forget because I can’t do anything to alleviate the suffering. I want to focus on the friends I made, I want to focus on the laughs I had, I want to focus on the strength I came into contact with. But all of this is tied to the suffering, grief, and structural issues.

I am incompetent to the structural causes. Yet, I had made a promise to not only remember but to share, which involves understanding and identifying the structural causes of the migration out of the United States. Yet the road from learning to action requires reflection, and I turn to my faith to help me through this, to help make reflection a part of my worship.

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The Quran is unequivocal when it calls upon humans to reflect on the signs of Allah- “signs” here signifying Divine creation- in order to straighten their faith. In fact, I would argue that the Quran doesn’t want Muslims to have blind faith, that it requires Muslims to test their faith through reflective and introspective processes, as well as sacrifices and acts of self disciplining.

In fact, the Quran resorts to name calling for people that do not think, use reason, reflect on creation- referring to them as cattle, or as being ‘deaf’, ‘dumb’, ‘blind’ and ‘dead-hearted’ but worse, Allah goes on to say that “they are even farther astray from the Path” (25:44) because they hold on to beliefs like livestock. The lesson here is that livestock has no sense of where the herder is herding them, to the fields or the slaughterhouse, it matters not because they are driven by their immediate needs.

What differentiates humans from animals then, according to the Quran, is that Allah has endowed us with intellect, the ability to reason. The question becomes where and how to use this intellect. For this God very emphatically tells us that it is to be used in the service of faith (and society), in sifting through wrong by upholding right, chasing after the secrets of creation in the universe because it is through this process that we become closer to creation and therefore the Creator. These are some of the things that the Quran lists. But how does reflection work with intellect?

Where does reflection fit into our rational world?

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We live in a rational world, one in which we are required to be analytical and logical. That might not leave room for reflection, something that deals with emotions and feelings, right? We have a systemized methodology for thinking through things on a basis of trial and error, that is supposed to deliver the cold rational, removing the feelings and emotions.

Kant is considered one of the founders of Western philosophy and in particular his ‘Critique of Reason’ stands as the cornerstone for this rational process. In it Kant supported ideas for a scientific logical and rational thinking approach, enabling reasoned thinking. But the process of giving reason a structure requires reflection. I feel that the reflective process then is something that deserves more structure, at least for me, to help in approaching without getting lost in the jumbled tangled thoughts.

For starters when I leave reflection as a passive assignment, I tend never to get around to doing it. Mostly, I spend a lot of time thinking things through in my head but eventually I may only remember the final conclusion I arrived at, more often then not, I always find myself muddled by the process that got me to the conclusion.

Other times, I find myself following thoughts I had on my experiences, from one tangent to the next, and then asking myself “wait, what as I thinking about?” This is one reason why I write things down in a journal, or create To Do lists, and another reason why I believe in keeping planners. I just can’t keep things straight in my head. And when I leave my reflection process in my head, I often get incredibly lost.

A Theory of Reflection

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For this post, I decided that I wanted to offer something more then just my reflection on “reflection”. I did some Google searching, and I found Jeff Mitchells’ blogpost on the Coach Tool website, Reflection as a Coach Development Tool, as a fairly comprehensive theory based presentation on reflection. I took the liberty to excerpt a portion that summarized clearly the process I had in mind:

“Reflection has been described as a process that helps turn experience into knowledge (Gilbert & Trudel, 2001) and involves thought and exploration of a concept or event (Gray, 2007)… The work of Schon is often used as a base for discussing reflective practice. Schon discussed the different ways in which practitioners […] could reflect on their professional practice, in a practical environment (as opposed to purely theoretical). He identified ‘knowing-in-action’ which is the professional knowledge [used in daily practice] (Ghaye & Ghaye, 1998). This form of knowledge is based on a reflection of what [a person does], and is often difficult to explain, however it can be seen in how [someone] acts. It involves craft knowledge, and [life] experiences, values and prejudices (Anderson, et al., 2004).”

Mitchell goes on to outline a structure, which reflection can be approached from. He names two time frames for reflection- ‘Reflection-in-action’ and ‘reflection-on-action’; one takes place while you’re in the midst of things, the other after the fact. I find that I did a good job of reflection-in-action, writing thoughts down in my Field Notes notebook, and also writing follow up questions for myself to figure out. But now I need to do the reflection-on-action, this is where I need the most help!

Mitchell offers that in theory. He goes on to the more important aspect of how you go from your experience toward a critical decision or action stage by using reflective techniques during the reflect-on-action stage:

“There are three levels of reflection that are explained in the literature, these being technical reflection, practical reflection and critical reflection (Manen, 1977). Technical reflection looks at achieving objectives, and focuses on the effective and efficient use of knowledge (Cassidy, Jones, & Potrac, 2004). At this level the objectives and use of these methods are not questioned. At the practical level [you] will examine the objectives and goals, and analysis [the players] as people, looking at the assumptions that they bring to the […] environment. At the critical level of reflection, the [you] will focus on the moral, ethical and political meaning of the knowledge they use and the authority involved.”

Mitchell is talking about a coaching tool specifically, however, I find that the discussion isn’t limited to the profession of coaching. Reflection is very much a key component for every profession, here, I am applying reflection to my experiences in Central America, and more broadly to how I approach faith. The framework for all of this, however, diverging is still foundation-ally similar. We can agree on the framework, and then diverge on the appropriate tools utilized for reflection based on our needs.

It’s Time to Reflect: Tools for Reflecting

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I hope that through my reflection, I could help others with their approach towards reflection. Its a reminder for me first, but I feel I could do more. So here are some of the techniques I am utilizing to reflect. I found that these were techniques that I came to after trial and error and am still in the process of figuring out what could work better, your suggestions are greatly welcomed!

1. Experience Inventory Lists– I couldn’t get myself to really dig deep into reflection on my trip, because of other obligations that had to be jumped on immediately upon arrival at LAX. So I gave myself single pages with list prompts on top in my dedicated Field Notes notebook. Examples of these prompts include the following: “On this trip I wish…”; “Things I took for granted before this trip…”; and “Things i didn’t expect to learn…”. This becomes memory holders for me, because when I look back and read these lists I trigger memories and thoughts that I might not have had. In fact, I feel like the listing could also spur internal conversations where I have to ask myself questions like “What the heck was I thinking about when I listed this item here…”. This processing can trigger thoughts that help me make sense of what I learned, heard, and experienced connecting it to news and experiences I am living through at the moment.

2. ∆+ (delta plus analysis) – Sometimes its hard to even start with the lists. Sometimes you might just feel more comfortable to think back on your experience in terms of how you felt things went, how you could have done something differently, or maybe how wonderfully one experience was and identifying what made it so wonderful. This has helped to trigger stories and recollect certain things that I had not written down or thought of as being important during my trip to Central America. In fact, this was the first thing I did while flying back to LAX.

3. Dedicated Reflective time– The idea of reflection is either romanticized or its thought to be so straightforward as to happen inside your head at any given time. When we romanticize the idea of reflection we build up these ideals about how and where reflection takes place. Usually for me it happens in two places- out in nature where I am sitting alone or in some coffee shop with the right music, the perfect cup of coffee and absolutely all the free time in the world one could possibly have. In terms of being alone in nature, I think of the Prophet Muhammad in the cave of Hira or Prophet Moses herding the flock of sheep without a soul other then their own around. Given these conditions its no wonder I hardly gain any constructive reflective time. When I am adventuring in nature its with friends and family and most National Parks it requires backcountry backpacking to get away from the maddening crowds. And I don’t go to coffee shops to sit down and reflect, if I am lucky I get a few hours to study and then off to the next task. I realized, if I don’t build in dedicated time to sit and reflect, I just won’t get around to doing it. So each day I give my self thirty minutes to do #1, #2, and #5 from this list.

4. Gibbs Reflection Cycle– I was introduced to Gibbs Reflection Cycle while at UCSD. Graham Gibbs, Learning By Doing, is actually available for free here.  I didn’t put much effort toward practicing what I learned. However, I feel upon further trial and error on things that help the reflective process, I found myself going back to the Gibbs Cycle because of the structure it provides. I will leave the details for you to read in his book, but the gist of the cycle is that you begin by giving a description of your experience, then move into providing some associated feelings, then you evaluate where those feelings arise from out of the description of the experience you gave. From this evaluation you draw conclusions and then, finally, you draw action items. The idea being that the best way to learn is from experience, and reflecting on your experience will provide you with a definite action plan. Since I have been doing some of the other suggestions from this list, I am beginning to get to the point where I can start working through this cycle based on topics, meetings I had in Central America. However, this requires way more then the half hour time I am dedicating to reflection.

5. The Opposite Approach– I also seem to function well when I make lists of questions I still have. This helps me identify what was the muddiest part of what I heard, saw, discussed, during my experience. It identifies the holes I have in my understanding. I actually ended up doing this a lot in Honduras because the experience there seemed to me to be very much convoluted. But the idea was by identifying what I didn’t understand, I began to get a good idea of what I did understand.

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