Einstein was right, but especially about the definition of Insanity: “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
At this time of year, when many of us are contemplating our goals and plans for 2015, we would do well to try and just not be crazy. Whatever goal we state—eat less, exercise more, be nicer to people, say “no!” more, put family first, do better about finances—just stating it is not enough. It helps to be committed to the task, to alert someone about your goal to be held accountable, and to have a game plan that keeps you moving forward. But even those steps do not guarantee success.
The best place to start if positive change is really the goal is in the simple meta-cognitive act of reflection. This ability, in fact, might be one of those uniquely human skills that can help give life meaning. It is through reflection about actions, behaviors, relationships, situations, beliefs, life itself that we can gain understanding and appreciation and make plans on what needs changing to make things better.
The Oxford English Dictionary offers this definition of reflection, after the more realistic pronouncements about mirrors: “The process or faculty by which the mind observes and examines its own experiences and emotions” and the more simple “deep and serious thought.” Its synonyms include remembrance, contemplation, and introspection.
When trying to imagine reflection or contemplation in action, Rodin’s The Thinker is likely to come to mind. Or maybe someone strolling alone along a desolate road or sitting on a ledge somewhere staring into space. But in reality, reflection does not require such solitude and drama. Reflection is enhanced when it is paired with insights, dreams, hopes, awareness and appreciation.
The act of reflection is really very simple: consciously taking the time to look back on the past year, day, event and recognize what was good and what needed changes. Califraven (a terrific blogger I follow) turned this simple meta-cognitive tool into a game called Roses, Buds & Thorns. As she explains, roses are the best part of the day, buds are things that need to change, and thorns are the worst part of the day. Simple.
This sort of review or reflection is what helps add significance to an experience or a purpose to a new plan of action. Reflection adds meaning, importance, significance to life. If we never stop and reflect, all those little things that can mean so much, the people we love, the gratitude we could express, can easily be overlooked in the hustle and bustle of missed appointments and blaring phones and endless hours of mindless diversion.
In the classroom, I try hard to convince my students that reflection is the heart of learning. It is a meta-cognitive tool that can help students become independent learners. For example, consider the student who did her best to study for a test but blew it anyway. As the next test approaches, if she does the same thing again as she studies, she is likely to fail once again. Instead, she needs to pull out of herself a bit and objectively look at what she did to study the first time and decide where she can make changes. If she just reviewed the chapters rather than read them, try reading them this time. You do not change a lot of things for the second time around, just a few. Then you can track the new results and see what worked. It’s like a little self-awareness experiment.
If this little introspection exercise can become routine, students can truly become independent learners. Then this new skill can become a habit that helps add significance and insight into all aspects of life. Through reflection, it is much easier to look to what needs changing and what needs repeating to make life better. It starts with questions: Why was that last vacation so great/terrible? What made the relationship work or not? Why did or didn’t I keep last year’s resolutions? There are a million questions that could be asked. The point is to stop a minute, look back and even within, and consider and question your past, so you can be more conscious and deliberate about a better future.
On this first day of 2015, as you very likely are planning or sharing your new year’s resolutions, add some reflection to the process along with some imagination and creativity. A simple way to start is to play the little Roses, Buds & Thorns Game already mentioned. If nothing else, reflection makes you more aware, which leads to understanding, appreciation, gratitude and then eventually plans to change for the better.
So go ahead, reflect a bit on life and love and all that’s important to you. It’s not as crazy as it sounds that looking back can help you move forward. In fact, reflection could help you break whatever you keep doing over and over and over again in your own insane little world that does not quite work.
Happy New Year!
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Some Quotes to Reflection Upon
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Kierkegaard
“All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” Nietzsche
“Reflect upon your present blessings—of which every many has many—not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.” Dickens
“Did you ever wonder if the person in the puddle is real, and you’re just a reflection of him?” Bill Watterson
“Sometimes, you have to look back in order to understand the things that lie ahead.” Yvonne Woon
“I am a writer of books in retrospect. I talk in order to understand; I teach in order to learn.” Robert Frost
“Study without reflection is a waste of time; reflection without study is dangerous.” Confucius
“. . . It is only by reflection that one can assimilate what one has read. If one reads straight ahead without pondering over it later, what had been read does not take root, but is for the most part lost.” Schopenhauer
“Reflection must be reserved for solitary; whenever she was alone, she gave way to it as the greatest relief; and not a day went by without a solitary walk, in which she might indulge in all the delight of unpleasant recollections.” Jane Austen
“A lake is a landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is Earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” Thoreau
“Usually, when the distractions of daily life deplete our energy, the first thing we eliminate is the thing we need the most: quiet, reflective time. Time to dream, time to contemplate what’s working and what’s not, so that we can make changes for the better.” Saran Ban Breathnach
“Habit rules the unreflecting herd.” William Wordsworth
“It is necessary. . . for a man to go away by himself. . . to sit on a rock. . . and ask, ‘Who am I, where have I been, and where am I going?’” Carl Sandburg
“By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is the most bitter.” Confucius
“It is not by muscle, speed, or physical dexterity that great things are achieved, but by reflection, force of character, and judgment.” Cicero