Vanishing Reflective Space?
Marisa Guerin, PhD – March 23, 2021
One of the things I’ve learned from wise people and from my own experience is that the practice of reflection on our lives is one of the keys to maturity, inner coherence, a peaceful heart and yes, even happiness.
Reflection, to me, means the turning over in my mind and heart of the events of my days in order to understand what they might teach me about myself or about my world. Things that I don’t understand or find difficult to deal with can resolve themselves into clarity and a way forward. It is, for me, a spiritual practice.
Perhaps because I’m an introverted personality, I have always had an inclination to be reflective. In my case, it is through writing – there are four linear feet of my private journal binders on my bookshelf, with more than fifty years of notes in them. I’ve been confirmed in this habit by my reading and writing this past year or so about the things we can learn from Thérèse of Lisieux. She was notable as a modern teacher of the spiritual life because of her method, which was deceptively simple: it was centered on her capacity for perceptive reflection on her own life.
You would think that a pandemic, when we are bereft of our normal comings and goings, might be the ideal time for more reflection time in our lives. But I suspect that might not be happening very much, because even in the compressed, dull, life-space of covid-time, our lives are filled with distractions. In fact, we might be desperately seeking distractions to keep our minds off our painful deprivations.
It wasn’t always true that our attention span was all used up. It used to be that even busy people had bits of time here and there in the course of the day when they could think their thoughts or feel their feelings.
But reflective space is vanishing these days, consumed by our phones, tablets, laptops, Zoom meetings, and the permanent connectivity they provide. Now, the cup of coffee or the wait in line involves checking for texts from the family, reviewing emails from work, keeping an eye on the latest newsfeed. Our mobile devices are always at the ready. For many of us, it has become an addictive behavior.
This is an important challenge for us to recognize. The ability to reflect on our experiences is fundamental for our emotional health, even if we are not explicitly religious in the way that Thérèse was. Without some way to be regularly in touch with the movement within our hearts, we are prone to become frazzled, anxious, and splintered in our attention. Everything floods in, and the first thing to get swept away is our own inner freedom to choose a loving, compassionate, creative response to other people, or to our own bruised hearts.
Even when we are stuck at home, the stress of daily living can wreak a sort of violence on us, wearing us out, driving us to low-level addictions and compulsions, to overwork, to escapist screen time, to comfort food. Numbness sets in, and restlessness. When our lives are so filled up, the potential reflective space between overstimulated living and exhausted sleep vanishes.
There is good news, though. The heart finds its way through, even if we have to be half-a-wreck before we listen to it. The reflective approach to growth and insight is an intuitive process. It’s something that arises naturally whether we intend it or not. This built-in reflective awareness of ours isn’t usually focused on life’s big theoretical questions. We’re more likely to be mulling over the remark that we made, or failed to make; the anxiety we feel about finding a good job or meeting that special someone; concerns about our kids or our parents; or how things are going at work.
It is in the reflective time that we gain insight; the “aha” that reveals our deeper need, or our personal agenda. This is true even if our time for reflection has to be creatively braided into the busy routines of home and work.
If we’d like to change our distracted pattern, it may be most realistic to begin with small ways to build a more reflective spirit into our lives. In fact, we’ll probably be better off with a simple practice that is not too hard for us – perfectionism is likely to run amok if we set about trying to do the reflection thing “right!” Restoring an inner order, a bit of sorting things out in a quiet place, can start with small steps. It is sufficient to begin by taking five or ten minutes on a regular basis when we can attend to how we feel and what we need.
Becoming more reflective means learning how to listen to our inner self no matter how messy our reality is. It means honestly noticing our actual feelings and desires, with a sense of compassion for ourselves and the others with whom we live and work. This process of reviewing our lives – open to our connection with the spirit of all wisdom – is what Therese would call prayer, and perhaps the most natural one for most of us. It certainly is for me. It is also one we may overlook and not even regard as prayer.
Some people find that their most reflective time occurs when they are taking a walk or a bike ride outdoors (without listening to music or podcasts), especially when it is possible to gaze on nature and recognize our smallness in the vastness and beauty of creation. For others, the rare reflective moment might arrive as they engage in ordinary repetitive tasks like pulling weeds or folding laundry. Maybe it only gets its turn for your attention when a babysitter is wrangling the two-year-old.
The practice of writing for yourself – journaling – is an especially powerful way to get in touch with what our feelings can tell us about our truth. Writing a journal entry is not the same as recording daily activities or keeping a health log. Journaling is strictly private, just for the eyes of the writer, so there is no need for lengthy details or self-conscious phrasing. In a journal entry, we write candidly how we feel, what we are thinking; not necessarily every day, but when the spirit moves us, perhaps especially when we know we are dealing with some turbulent or difficult emotions.
The linear nature of writing, unlike our whirling worry-cycle, coaxes us into naming our inner experience – sometimes in ways we hadn’t even registered before. In the privacy of our journal, we can be baldly honest with ourselves. We may find tears suddenly welling up when we name a painful loss or betrayal, touching the place in our heart that hurts. The urge to write something down happens when we can feel that things aren’t sorted out inside; there may something bothering us, something not right, or a decision ahead that feels big and feels important and we know we need to give it some attention. We begin with noticing what is stirring within us:
What is going on inside of me? Which feelings have me in their grip, pushing me around? What is that about?
The process of journaling, for a few minutes or a half an hour, in a notebook or typed on our computer, is a conscious and focused way to engage in the reflection that makes inner freedom possible. Journal writing can enable us to name our feelings honestly, safely, without judging or blaming ourselves.
Journal writing is not for everyone. But whatever form of reflection we might choose, what is important is that the chatter of the world around us be temporarily silenced so that we can be present to the stirrings of our own heart.
Reflective time is intimate “me-time” when we listen to the larger mystery of Love and Life. It opens us to the slow work of healing on our journey to emotional and spiritual maturity. As we recognize and accept our feelings, we are able to see what they reveal about us. We come to know our personal vulnerabilities, the pain in our hearts, and the yearnings that fill us. We grow into the spacious joy of our truth.
I’m glad I don’t really believe it can vanish entirely.
“Knock, knock, this is your heart, come calling; we need to visit….”