§13 – Time for reflection

(Part 13 of 13 in series, Changes and Results)

My title refers both to my doing of such, and is a suggestion that you should as well. It’s been a long time since I added a post to this beloved series, Changes and Results. But, today just happens to be—meaning I’ve been waiting for many months for this date :) —exactly nine years from my first daily journal entry.

What would you wish to be doing, then, when death finds you? For my part, I would wish it to be something that befits a human being, some beneficient, public-spririted, noble action. But if I cannot be found doing such great things as these I should like at least to be doing that which cannot be impeded and is given to me do, namely, correcting myself, improving the faculty that deals with impressions, toiling to achieve tranquillity, and rendering to the several relationships of life their due; and, if I am so fortunate, advancing to the third area of study, that which deals with the attainment of secure judgements.

~ Epictetus, 4.10.12-3

Each morning I spend significant time in reflection. Without going too deeply into specifics, I don’t get up at precisely the same time, and I do take the occasional day off from my morning reflection. But beginning my day by reflecting—not on my yesterday, nor recent events per se, but generally reflecting on my self—is second in importance to me only to getting a good night’s sleep.

My process is, well, mine. I use software synced across multiple computers and mobile devices and so on… I also have physical books, and journals, and paper and pen… I’ve some 3×5 cards, physical boxes, etc.… The specific “how” is unimportant. You’ll find your own methods. But, simply to give you some ideas, here’s an outline of my morning reflection as of late 2020:

  • Reading previous journal entries — I have marks in my journals making it simple for me to open historical entries; Each morning I read my entry (if any) from 9, 6, 3 and 1 year ago.
  • Today’s Daily Stoic entry — Stoic with a capital-S, which is not closely related to the English word “stoic.”
  • An item prompting specific self-reflection — From a series of self-reflection prompts I’ve accumulated over the years.
  • An item of inspiration — These come from a second series of prompts which I’ve developed, and are meant to get me to keep my shit in order. The quote at the top of this post from Epictetus is one of these prompts. They’re not sunny platitudes, but rather they are I’m-not-kidding-around-here-serious prompts to get me focused in what I’ve assessed to be the right direction.
  • Reading — I have a stack of books which are specifically Philosophical. Not simply non-fiction, but works by Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Stoicism and Philosophy in general. Some mornings I’ll study just one page from one of these books. Some mornings I’ll spend over an hour in this reading.
  • Journalling — After thus limbering up my brain and exposing it to that carefully curated collection of ideas, I pick up my pen and open my journal.

Exactly how much time does that take? It varies, but usually hours. This morning, I stopped short to do this writing. I was about 2 hours into this morning’s reflection when I switched to working on this post. Unusually, this morning I have a hard stop for something that has a specific time. (I’ve cleared from my entire life anyone’s ability to interrupt me, summon me, demand my attention, etc..) If you are aghast at this arrangement of my life… If you are thinking, “I could never do that,” I can only say:

How can you afford not to?

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Time for reflection

Imagine that you were to sign up for a retreat this month … you put aside your daily life, all your busywork, all your projects and errands and emails and messages … and you travel to another place. In this place, you remove yourself from the busy world and find space for quiet. For reflection. For contemplation, setting intentions, reviewing how things have gone. For gratitude and appreciation for life.

~ Leo Babauta from, https://zenhabits.net/december-retreat/

Today, a rare two-fer’…

Not only does hyper-connection alter our social relationships, it also makes us dumber, as pointed out as early as 2005. It threatens our health too. Twenty-first-century afflictions include digital fatigue, social media burnout or compulsive internet use. Cures for these rising internet-related disorders include such radical solutions as rehab centers, or disconnection.

~ Antoine Lefeuvre from, https://alistapart.com/column/designing-for-post-connected-users-part-1/

Babauta’s take is from the Zen perspective of simply—as in: this is the only thing you have to do, and don’t overcomplicate it in the doing—creating space in your life. Lefeuvre’s is from a nuts-and-bolts perspective of facts and tactics.

I feel called quite often to take more time to reflect. I was going to write, “sit and reflect,” but it’s not quite always sitting. I believe this is also true for everyone else; some people are early on in their journeys and their need for reflection is small in total, but it is more than they are currently doing. With precious few exceptions, we could all use more time for reflection.

Do you have time for reflection built into your life?

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The writing is easy

The hard part is deciding what to share.

At no point am I at a loss for something to write. Instead, I’m at a loss to decide what is worth sharing. This is true for this web site, conversations I have with podcast guests, and my personal journal. The way I sort out whether something is worth sharing is to think about who is it for. I read my personal journals in an ongoing way—each morning, (give or take,) I read that day’s entry from various numbers of years ago. So in my journalling I know that capturing my struggles and frustrations will serve me well; 9 years later, I read those entries and am relieved to see how that story turned out.

Other things—this web site, the podcast conversations—are not meant primarily for me. And so with pieces like this I try to have a point. Today it’s: Language, writing, conversation, reading, etc. are tools. As with any tool, it’s the intention of the user which matters most. You can break things or build things up using any tool you care to consider.

But first you have to ask yourself are you using your tools intentionally?

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Creating space in the morning for reflection

“The pleasure in thinking and doing things well is…deep-wired.” I think this is absolutely true. Thoreau retreated to Walden Pond, in part, to do nothing — to just observe and live deliberately — but he also wrote a first draft of a book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, while in his cabin. He then left the pond to move in with Emerson, where he wrote another book, this one about his experience at the pond, then another soon after, Civil Disobedience. Thoreau found peace observing nature; but his real pleasure was in producing enduring work.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2020/04/01/on-productivity-and-the-deep-life/

I’ve long ago lost any real sense of which life changes have had the most benefit. But if I were to pick one, it would be making time to reflect. I’m often making adjustments here and there to my life, and those changes are always based on a period of reflection. What have I been doing that has been making me feel well? What have I been doing that has been making me feel unwell? …and so on.

For a while—three years to be specific—I’ve been trying to begin each day with some basic movement/stretching and then some sort of physical activity. I’m talking about first thing each morning. Get out of bed, deal with necessities (eg, coffee :) and then begin with movement and activity. 3 and 2 years ago, that activity was running. For the past year, the physical activity has been a sort-of-like-Olympic-weight-lifting program called Happy Body.

This is not working for me. Sure, when I manage to start with activity then I’m awake and moving and it’s good for my health and I get lots of what I want done each day. But it’s a struggle every. damn. day. blech! What I really want, first thing in the morning, is to NOT be physically active, but rather to be mentally active.

Starting today, I’m overhauling my first-thing-each-day routine to be:

  1. Reflect on the day’s self-assessment reminder
  2. Reflect on the day’s entry from Holiday’s, The Daily Stoic
  3. Read my previous journal entries and write in my current journal
  4. Spend some time in philosophical reading

I encourage you to build a reflection habit. It can be first-thing each morning or whenever works for you. (Many people allocate time for reflection as the last thing each day before going to sleep.) You should intentionally choose what to do as your reflection practice. I’ll go so far as to suggest you perform a few weeks experimentation with each idea you come up with, until you find a reflection practice that works for you. The more you reflect the more you’ll want to iterate and improve creating a virtuous feedback loop.

That’s the plan anyway. It’s certainly the best plan I’ve come up with for me, so far.

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‘Think’ breaks

Conduct shorter think breaks. Even a few hours can be extraordinarily helpful. This can be as simple as leaving the office at lunch in order to have a phone-free reflection period at a nearby coffee shop.

~ Chris Bailey from, https://alifeofproductivity.com/how-to-take-a-think-break/

The quote is a from a list of “Do’s,” so it may feel a bit odd. If you don’t immediately know what a think-break is, stop and go read that short article. (Which also contains a link to a longer article. :)

Some people famously take week-long, totally-disconnected (from people, technology, routine, everything,) think-breaks. I suppose I could do that—I mean I know it would be possible, but I feel that I don’t need an entire week to think.

All I do is come to a stop and start thinking. After a few minutes I’ve 11 new ideas—or worse, ideas that have been rattling around in my head—that I can either decide to outright kill immediately, or work into things that need to be done. I don’t need to spend more time thinking, I need to spend more time anti-doing things. Do one thing, cross off two, or better yet, three things from my literal or ephemeral lists.

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Retreat and reflection

In this place, you remove yourself from the busy world and find space for quiet. For reflection. For contemplation, setting intentions, reviewing how things have gone. For gratitude and appreciation for life.

You might meditate, relax, read, journal. You might take a walk in nature, or find solitude. You might just mindfully enjoy the space.

~ Leo Babauta from, https://zenhabits.net/december-retreat/

What I like about this prompting from Babauta is that it’s about creating space for retreat and reflection; it’s not about necessarily going to some specific, special place. I’ve spent several years arranging and rearranging my life to create space for retreat and reflection in my daily life. It’s not easy. It hasn’t been easy. …on me or on those around me. I had gotten to the place I was gradually by taking small steps, day after day, in the wrong direction. So turning around was difficult, and beginning to walk back was close to impossible.

But it was possible. It is possible.

Do you have 5 minutes every day where you can retreat and reflect? If you don’t, try it for a few days. Set aside a specific time and work to arrange your life (including the people in your life) to make that small space sacred.

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Leverage

In sum, there isn’t a clear ladder of actions a person can progress through, with easy unimportant ones at the bottom, and hard important ones at the top. There will be hard-for-you unimportant actions, and easy-for-you important actions. The last thing you should do if you come across a hard-for-you unimportant action is stop looking for other things to do.

~ Katja Grace, from https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/pmifMjht6Y4dBPhqF/skill-and-leverage

One variation of this is, “a messy desk shows an organized mind.” It’s not important that I do everything perfectly, have everything organized, and have no loose ends. In fact, that’s patently impossible. What matters is that I figure out what should be done perfectly, what should be organized and which loose ends should be tied up. Got it.

I’m currently spending a lot of time reflecting on being comfortable with some imperfectly done things, some disorganized things, and some loose ends. Not trying to complete nor eliminate those things, but rather, simply being comfortable with those things, in those states.

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Reflection

What makes this moment so precarious is that most of us are unconscious, in the event, both of our aspiration and of our Resistance. We’re asleep. We know only that we feel bad. Something’s wrong. We’re restless, we’re bored, we’re angry; we’re seeking something grand but don’t know where to look 

~ Steven Pressfield, from https://stevenpressfield.com/2011/05/resistance-and-addiction/

These days, the skill of reflection is on my mind. I’ve become convinced that discovery, reflection, and efficacy are the three stepping stones to self-actualization. It seems to me that the way out of the Gordian knot presented by Pressfield is via reflection.

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Before dawn

I’m not sure if it’s the silence, or the darkness. Maybe it’s the fact that pre-dawn there are two kinds of people, those who are sleeping and those who are up attacking their day and I prefer to be the later. (Although, it’s a physical fight with my body every morning.)

There’s a time and place for most everything. Writing, for example, seems best done in the early morning. Vacationing seems best done at the end of summer. Hard labor seems best done in one’s 20s.

I wonder when is the best time for introspection?

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Movers Mindset Three Words

In each of the Movers Mindset podcast episodes, I ask guests to pick three words to describe their practice. Each guest’s choice has turned out to be a much more interesting and intriguing part of the conversation than we had initially anticipated.

The word practice goes beyond movement and often evokes broader images and ideas that reflect an approach to life. The idea that parkour and movement techniques in general are more than just physical has always been behind Movers Mindset. This is why I focus on ideas and reflection, for example, rather than on flashy videos of daring movement. The deeper dive into the mindset of movers is where the real magic happens.

That’s why I decided to do some introspection and pick three words that describe my practice. It was a challenge because reducing your practice to three words can seem like you are saying that the practice is nothing more than these three words, so you try to pick broad, powerful words to make sure you cover everything. Really, however, when you pick words that are too broad and too sweeping, you wind up not really saying anything specific that is unique to you. On the other hand, if you try to pick overly specific words, they may describe only one tiny part of your practice and give the impression that the scope of your focus is too narrow.

Picking three words is a challenge that I give to our guests, so it’s fair that I do it too. I found that capturing the essence of my practice in three words required a lot of introspection, and the act of choosing three words wound up being empowering. By going through the process, I now understand my practice more explicitly and am better prepared to describe it to other people. It’s not that I did not know the path I was following before, but now the path is clearer. It is easier to determine if a new project is consistent with my practice and vision, and this helps guide my choices in the overall direction of Movers Mindset. In general, I found the exercise to be challenging and highly worthwhile.  If you want the extra boost yourself, picking three words to describe your own practice is a good way to get started. It is a great way to discover things about yourself and about your relationship to the world.

This leads me to the first word: discovery. I wanted a word that involved starting with reality, with what we know about the world and about ourselves. I rejected observation because it is not active enough.  It has connotations of just sitting back and watching, listening, and taking the world in through your senses, but in a passive way. I also did not want a word like imagination or invention as my starting point, because these involve creating things. 

Generations ago when Benjamin Franklin confronted that fearsomely powerful storm driven on by his even more powerful desire to know—a desire that pushed him beyond the limits of anything humans had ever done—he was driven by the urge to discover, the urge to take action to learn what it was and what made it work. Franklin discovered that lightning was a form of electricity, but Edison invented the lightbulb. Discovery always comes first. Franklin pushed past the millennia of fear, the millennia of cowering primitive people who saw lightning as the tool and province of the gods—never to be understood, grasped, or controlled by humans. He uncovered or discovered its secret. By learning what it was, he took the tool of the gods and made it his own. He was not the first to discover facts about electricity, but his actions symbolize the process and the principle: boldly looking at reality, uncovering its secrets, and moving them from the realm of mystery and superstition to our realm of understanding and science.

Discovery is an active process involving interacting or experimenting with reality. You may not discover that you are great at painting, cooking, or singing until you try and observe the results. Often you will discover that you need more practice or that you need to master specific skills and techniques. However, without action, you cannot discover your strengths to move you forward or discover any weaknesses to be overcome. Discovery involves the honest looking at reality and the identification and understanding of what reality tells you. Your opinions, wishes, feelings, do not matter at this stage.  What matters is that you observe to the best of your ability, that you experiment, and that you see—with as much honesty and focus as you can muster—all that reality has to offer.

Discovery is not the end of the game; it is only the beginning. The second step in the process leads me to my second word: reflection. Discovery means you have learned something about reality and yourself. What should you do with that information? What does it mean? What do you do next? The answer is that you must think about what you learned. Why didn’t I pick the word thinking instead of reflection? Thinking is too broad in meaning for this context. While I am a big advocate of thinking in general and recognize it as the key to every successful human endeavor—without exception, my practice involves a particular type of thinking that is tied directly to reality and the facts I have uncovered about it. Reflection captures this meaning. A clear reflection in a mirror involves the accurate reproduction of reality.

As we think about things, we want to be careful that we do not go off course, that we do not imagine things that are not real or ignore things that are. We want to make sure that our thinking accurately reflects those facts about reality that we have discovered. Reflection is a type of careful thinking that takes each idea and connects it specifically to some fact about reality that we have discovered. There is nothing in your head to automatically guarantee that your thinking is correct. It is easy to go off course. It is easy to deceive yourself. It is easy to make the mistake that an early failure at a complex movement means that you will never master it. Reflection can protect you from such errors. If you fail in your first attempt, that is a fact, a part of reality that you cannot deny. So, the idea that you failed is valid; it corresponds to a fact you discovered. However, the idea that you will be bad at this every time you try is imaginary; you made it up. There is no discovery in reality, no fact in reality that corresponds to the notion that you will always fail. There is no reason to believe or to accept your imagined ideas when they do not reflect reality.

Reflection, then, is a type of self-check, a way of making sure that your ideas are validated by reality. Imagination can give you ideas about what you want to validate through discovery and reflection, but it leads to useful information only when the idea is tested. If you imagine you will always be bad at something, start testing your idea. Practice. Practice again and again. Discover if you get better or if you continue to be bad at it. Reflect on your progress honestly. If after a period of regular practice, you find that you still are no good at it, there is at least a possibility that you are right. Your conclusion has some support. But if you are much better now than you were when you started, that improvement supports the idea that you will eventually—with continued practice and diligence—get good at it.

Reflection also means holding a mirror up to yourself. Why do you like certain things? What makes you feel happy, successful, powerful or disappointed and sad? Why do you think you are good at something? How did you develop those skills? Reflecting on your strengths and understanding what worked for you previously helps you grow. Reflecting on the things that scare you and hold you back helps you develop the strengths you need to overcome those worries. When you reflect on your emotions, you discover ideas or premises that are the foundation of those emotions. This means you have the opportunity to reflect on those ideas and premises and test them against reality. Are they true or false? Do they correspond to reality or contradict it?

These two questions–Are your ideas true or false? Do your ideas correspond to reality or contradict it?–ask the same thing. Reality is the standard of right and wrong, of true and false. By actively reflecting about your ideas, your discoveries, your thoughts, and your feelings, you will eventually eliminate all contradictions from your entire life. You will reach a state where you see reality, and yourself in it, with full clarity and full understanding. The world has rules by which it behaves. Things act in a particular way. If you drop something, it falls. If you touch a fire, it hurts. If you act according to these rules, you will be successful. If you ignore the rules either by failing to discover them or by evasion, you fail. Acting in accordance with the rules of reality gives you a sense of self-confidence in your own ability. This leads me to my last word that captures this self-confidence: efficacy.

After practicing discovery and reflection again and again, you realize through experience that the world is knowable. You learn that you can discover it, learn its rules, and apply them successfully. You know that you have the power to validate your results along the way and correct any errors. Reflection gives you confidence that what you have discovered, is correct; your knowledge and conclusions are valid. Given enough time and effort, you know that you can reach any rational goal, understand any process, and check and refine your results thoroughly until you have the confidence of certainty. This mental state, where you know you can meet any challenge, learn anything, develop any skill, solve any problem is efficacy.

Efficacy is the power to produce a desired effect. Recognition of your own efficacy means that you have recognized your own potential for continued success and growth. Your choices of actions at this point are not based on concerns about current limits of your ability or understanding. Instead, your choices are guided by what skills, practices, and accomplishments will give you the most enjoyment, make your life better, increase your skills, or broaden your knowledge. Your experience in life changes from asking “What can I do?” to asking “What should I do to make my life the best it can be?”

The ancient Greeks had a word for this process of reaching your full potential: eudaimonia. I did not pick that as one of my three words, in part because it is even more obscure than efficacy, but eudaimonia was in the running. Aristotle wrote most extensively about eudaimonia, but it was important to many Greek philosophers. It is difficult to translate, because the concepts leading up to it are not widely understood in our culture. Few people today recognize that by understanding the rules of reality, validating them, and putting them into practice consistently, success is almost guaranteed—barring error or misfortune. Eudaimonia integrates these ideas into a process of living your best life. It is a continuous process of self-actualization where all the best conditions are in place: happiness, morality, meaning, purpose, the fulfilling of our special, unique potentials as humans. Efficacy is necessary to have the confidence to work toward eudaimonia.

Eudaimonia is more than just a final condition. It is the process of human flourishing. It is the process of doing those things that best help you function well as a human being at the highest level. My other two words, discovery and reflection, are both active processes, and I want to focus on the active process of developing and recognizing efficacy. Efficacy includes both being effective and recognizing that you are effective; it describes a self-aware competence in action. Eudaimonia is the goal, but recognizing and developing your own efficacy is how you get there and stay there.

Finally, I wanted three words that reflect my practice in terms of its essentials, but which could also help others find their personal path to success. The words had to capture the ideas of action and thinking, doing and learning–the Mover and the Mindset. They had to wrap up my process and philosophy in a way that captures who I am and provides value to the Movers Mindset audience. I think that discovery and reflection applied iteratively, building on previous knowledge and success leads to continued growth. Repeated experience with success and growth leads to a recognition of efficacy where you understand that you have potential to be successful in almost anything.

Activities that involve continuous improvements are often described as mastery practices. Mastery practices involve continuous improvement through discovery, reflection, and active practice with full recognition of efficacy. While mastery practices range from focused practices like law, medicine, martial arts, plumbing or carpentry, the most important mastery practice is living your own life to the fullest–reaching your full potential–eudaimonia. Since your full potential requires continuous improvement, it is important to develop the mindset–the set of ideas–that allows for this unceasing movement toward greater success and well-being. Discovery of this process, reflection to hone its accuracy, and development of efficacy are the steps that each individual must undertake independently.

Although your own path is unique, the principles involved are universal and can be learned from others. A goal of Movers Mindset is to bring these principles to light in an accessible way that encourages discovery and reflection while demonstrating and promoting efficacy in each individual. While you still have to walk the path on your own, under your own power and by your own effort, Movers Mindset hopes to make the path a little clearer.

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