I’ve been reflecting a lot on reflection lately. It’s meta, I know — but reflection is the topic of the new nonfiction book I’m writing (in the nooks and crannies between writing the mystery novel and writing marketing content for Horizon Peak Consulting clients).
Modern life doesn’t give you a whole lot of time to think — but it sure does give you a lot of things to think about.
I know I’m not unusual in this, but it feels like my mind is always going and never getting anywhere. As a business owner, author, mom, wife, homeowner, Coloradan, nature-lover, history buff — endless thoughts pass through my mind in a nonstop stream of consciousness. Yet most of those thoughts are fleeting, unimportant, obsessive, or just plain silly. Buddhists call this the “monkey mind.”
The current prescription for this is meditation. And while meditation is fantastic (and I should certainly do it more), it’s more of an “off switch.”
While our minds default to the “on” position in everyday life, shallowly processing the input we constantly consume, experiencing a passive stream of consciousness — meditation is how we switch to “off.”
In meditation, the purpose is to quiet the mind, to quell the thinking, chattering “monkey mind.” There are lots of good reasons to meditate — and lots of ways people use meditation as a tool. Meditation can help you manage stress and anxiety (this is the benefit I’ve personally found). For some, it energizes them or spurs their creativity (not so much for me). Some people meditate to access a deeper intelligence, open the door to the subconscious, or connect with a higher power. Meditation, for all its benefits, is a mostly passive activity. Your only “action” is to quiet the mind, and the rest happens on its own.
There are so many benefits to meditation and the “off switch” of it, for sure — but for critical thinking and often for creativity (ideation, at least), we need to keep our minds engaged. We need another tool.
That tool is reflection.
In reflection, the purpose is to engage the mind. Unlike meditation where the purpose is to turn off or dim our thoughts, in reflection we activate our thinking. We actively contemplate something — a goal, challenge, situation, decision, or simply some information that we’ve consumed.
Reflection is deliberate thinking.
Engaging the mind in such a way has benefits that I believe complement meditation and facilitate critical thinking.
Reflection reveals our thoughts and feelings to us in a conscious and purposeful way, and gives us an opportunity to process them. It gives us insight into our own mind and heart, and with it we can gain perspective on our lives and the world around us. Reflection can give us clarity, help us see connections we didn’t notice before, reveal our own strengths and weaknesses, and aid us in making decisions. When you reflect, you think more deeply — it’s an active process.
Another difference between meditation and reflection is that reflection can be done at any time — while meditation requires focus and often silence as well. You can reflect in line at the DMV. You can reflect on the sidelines at your kid’s soccer game. You can reflect while you’re jogging.
The only thing reflection requires of you is that you stop the input. You can’t reflect while you’re doomscrolling. You can’t reflect while you’re tweeting. You can’t reflect while you’re playing Farmville. Reflecting involves thinking your thoughts, and we have to turn off the input to do that.
Think about a slow drain. If you keep the tap turned on, the water is just going to keep filling the sink until it’s overflowing. You have to turn off the tap to let the water drain. You have to turn off the input to reflect on the information you’ve already consumed.
I believe that constant input is the number one barrier preventing people from reflecting — and I’m sure it’s preventing people from meditating as well. We are addicted to input.
What if you muted your phone and kept the radio off while you were driving. Does that sound uncomfortable? For many people it feels down right painful. And yet with those few input-free minutes, your mind could work on processing what it had already consumed, and you could arrive at your destination clearer-headed, and with more perspective and confidence.
I have a lot of thoughts about how reflection and critical thinking are linked, and I’m hoping to write more on this here soon. For now, though, I’ll leave you with this interesting audio clip from an interview with bestselling author and poker champ Maria Konnikova.