Archive for July, 2016

What is ‘Reflection’?  The root of the word ‘Reflection’ is the Latin reflectere.  Flectere means ‘to bend,’ so re-flectere increases the inflection – ‘to bend back.’  The meaning has evolved and is now interpreted as an introspective ‘bending in’ – a reviewing of our own inner processes (thinking, feeling, intuiting).  Indeed, our ability for ‘reflective consciousness’ differentiates us from other living beings.

In 1933 John Dewey argued that reflective persons embodied certain key characteristics: open-mindedness, a willingness to accept intellectual responsibility for one’s own views, whole-heartedness (i.e. a willingness to face fears and uncertainties), enthusiasm, and curiosity.  Many consider Dewey to be the modern ‘father’ of ‘critical self-reflection.’

In 1983 Donald Schön emphasized the concept of ‘reflection-in-action’ – the reflective practitioner evaluates his/her intuitive understandings that are intrinsic to the experience and act as a guide to action.  This is ‘in the moment’ processing.

Jürgen Habermas added to our understanding when he distinguished three types and three stages of reflection.  Technical Reflection is concerned with efficiency and effectiveness of means to achieve certain ends (think: the effective application of skills and knowledge).   Practical Reflection allows for examination of goals and the assumptions on which they are based and recognizes that meanings are negotiated through language and communication.  Knowledge is viewed as socially constructed.  Individuals seek to develop a sense of shared values and norms within their specific contexts.  Critical Reflection adds moral and ethical criteria such as equity and justice.

Given this, consider that although ‘critical thinking’ and ‘critical reflection’ are often used interchangeably that there are important distinctions to be made.  Here are a few of them:

  • Critical Thinking involves a process of abstract reasoning, detecting the assumptions underlying the others’ position and identifying how these assumptions serve specific interests/agendas.
  • Critical Reflection involves a process whereby one explores/examines one’s own positioning – this requires being ‘awake’ and it requires an ability to be self-aware [Gentle reader, I refer you to Anthony DeMello’s stimulating and challenging book: ‘Awareness’ – DeMello will help you understand more fully ‘being awake and aware’]. Critical Reflection is generally, more challenging because of the unquestioning acceptance of the many deep tacit assumptions/beliefs that we hold (and these are not conscious to us).  Given the deeply personal nature of this process I add a word and end up with Critical Self-Reflection.

Critical Self-Reflection involves emerging, naming and questioning our deep tacit assumptions and beliefs and then exploring alternative perspectives, choosing one or more of them (while ‘letting go of’ one or more of our deep tacit assumptions and beliefs).  This is, in essence, ‘transformative learning’ (transformation = a fundamental change in character or structure requiring, at minimum, a change in one or more of our deep tacit assumptions, beliefs and core values).

What are some of the features that distinguish our capacity for critical self-reflection from other types of reflection?




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When it comes to our own lives, each of us has the potential to develop our capacities to become what I call ‘Reflective-Participant-Observers.’ The easiest part is to be a ‘Participant.’  Then, at times, we might find ourselves stepping back and ‘Observing’ ourselves ‘in action’ (for example, we might step back and ‘observe’ the choices we make, or we might ‘observe’ our actions or reactions or responses or the actions, reactions or responses of others).  What is by far the most challenging thing for us to engage in is to develop and put into practice certain ‘Reflective’ skills and capacities.  Of these, it appears to me that the most challenging is to develop our ability and capacity for ‘Critical Self-Reflection.

During these past months I have been taking some time to observe those who will be seeking our votes in November.  In our country, the spectrum of folks who will be casting their votes falls on a line from extreme right-wingers to extreme left-wingers.  Generally we lump folks together into two ‘camps’: Conservatives and Progressives.  I understand that these categories are simplistic – each contains many shades of gray.  For my purpose, however, I will employ the generic ‘Conservative-Progressive’ labels.

‘Conservatives and Progressives’ are imperfect human beings (at their best they are living paradoxes of ‘light and darkness,’ of ‘virtue and vice’ and of ‘good and evil’).  As imperfect human beings they are, by nature, also reasoning beings.  It appears that many ‘Conservatives and Progressives’ work hard at reasoning.  However, for BOTH, it is not always (if ever) a reasoning in search of ‘truth.’  It is a reasoning in support of their own emotional reactions.

Simply stated: Their moral reasoning is a servant of their moral emotions.  As imperfect human beings we are born to be morally righteous (an adulteration of this is to become morally self-righteous).  A major task/challenge for we imperfect human beings is to learn what exactly people ‘like us’ should be morally righteous about; that is, the context of family, school, faith or humanistic traditions, etc. ‘teach us’ what we are to be morally righteous about if we are going to be accepted by our family, school, and faith-humanistic traditions.  Once we integrate the ‘teachings’ we are able to discern all that we are to be morally righteous about.  Once integrated our moral righteousness functions rooted in our emotions and passions not in the rational-logical part of our being.

Our moral righteous emotions and passions hinder, if not directly block, our ability to engage in civil, thought-full, and searching conversations with the Conservative or Progressive.  Because we are emotionally and passionately ‘sure’ we find no need to engage in these types of conversations.  Because we are ‘sure’ the possibility for ‘common ground’ does not exist.  Because we are ‘sure’ we are not open to the possibility that a civil, thought-full, searching conversation with ‘the other’ might actually influence our thinking (partly because it is not our ‘thinking’ that is at play but our emotions and passions).

It is not, initially ‘the other’ that will convince us or influence us or ‘move us to consider.’  What might ‘move us’ is that we develop or develop more fully our capacity for ‘Critical Self-Reflection.’  How might we develop or develop more fully this capacity?

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When Contemptus Mundi was in full flower in Christianity (prior to the separation into the two spheres: spiritual and secular) Christians were taught to disdain the evil triad: The World-The Flesh-The Devil (more on this in a bit). A consequence (intended or unintended) of the separation of ‘Church’ and ‘State’ (the ‘Spiritual’ and ‘Secular’) was that a rivalry between the two emerged. In our country (and in the West) the ‘Secular’ has become dominant. In many ways the ‘Spiritual’ (think for our purposes: ‘Christianity’) has become more irrelevant (oh, lip service survives but the lived belies the lip service). In many ways, Christianity is threatened – check out how many ‘Christians’ actually live their ‘faith.’

Christianity had better acquire a healthy and articulate respect for the ‘modern world’ (and I do mean ‘world’) otherwise Christianity will find that there is no more room in the inn. Main Line Christianity will continue to wither on the vine (fringe groups might actually thrive for a number of reasons).

‘Conservative Christians’ in our country retain a certain element of contemptus mundi. They keep up their cohesion and morale by railing against specific issues – especially lax sexual morals, birth control, divorce and pornography. These are not infrequently referred to as ‘sins of the world.’ What these Christians seem to forget is that what they are referring to is not ‘the World’ but is ‘the Flesh’ (as in the evil triad: ‘The World-The Flesh-The Devil’).

‘The World,’ according to Christ, involves, among other things, ‘greed,’ ‘wealth,’ and ‘power.’ Conservative Christians tend to ignore this third of the evil triad (they, in effect, deny Christ’s view). The Conservative Christian’s conscience is ‘satisfied’ because they rail against the other two thirds of the evil triad. Moreover, they tell us – by deed and word – that only with ‘monetary wealth’ and ‘political power’ can the ‘Word’ truly be spread. The minister who drives a Volvo and is elected to office has more credence than the minister who rides the bus to serve the illegal immigrant.

What about the ‘Liberal Christians’ you ask? Well, gentle reader, the ‘Liberal Christians’ choose a different set of symbols that they hold up to us. For the most part, they are less concerned with the ‘sins of the flesh’ and focus on the ‘sins of the world.’ They are deeply interested in ‘social issues’ (justice, poverty, health, dis-ease, etc.).

They stand up for ‘Civil Rights’ for all. They believe that Christianity has a great deal to learn from ‘The World.’ They believe that the insights of ‘modern thought’ are more relevant to Christianity than the platitudes of a belief system that is wallowing in ‘The Flesh.’ For the Liberal Christian, the message of Christ will become credible to the modern world if the minister works on the assembly line or is arrested for civil disobedience.

Given these two positions it is no wonder that Conservative and Liberal Christians find it a challenge to understand one another, to be accepting of the other, and to ‘get along.’ At the extreme they condemn the ‘other’ for not being truly Christian.

It appears that the Liberal Christian’s position is somewhat more relevant to the 21st Century and the issues of the ‘World’ (the literal ‘world’). Their position implies a more real sense of ‘human need’ than those who reduce contemptus mundi to one or more of the many ‘anti-‘ positions that are popular today: anti-muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-gay/lesbian/trans-gender, anti-women’s rights, anti-‘stranger.’

It appears that the majority of us Christians (I include myself) don’t really like Christ’s ‘Good News.’ We continue to adulterate it and modify it. It might serve us well to revisit Christ’s concept of contemptus mundi (which He makes quite clear in his words, actions and parables). On the other hand, we might continue to ‘hedge our bets’ and rely upon God’s mercy (after all, we are imperfect, sinful beings) and God is a forgiving God.

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Gentle reader, you might remember that I am a Christian Ecumenist (that is, I am a follower of Jesus the Christ AND I believe that there is ‘truth’ in all faith-traditions and in all humanistic traditions – ‘seek and ye shall find’) and that when I was 18 years old I spent a year in a monastery.  Given our country’s current ‘concern’ (think: fear, suspicion, prejudice and judgment) about Islam and the ‘world’ I have been thinking a bit about ‘Christianity and the World.’  Some believe there is an approved (think: truth) answer; others, including myself, think that ‘surety’ is a trap (by the by, ‘faith’ by its very nature is rooted in ‘doubt’ not ‘surety’ – so if one claims to have ‘faith’ one claims to be rooted in ‘doubt’ not ‘surety’ – as is my wont, I digress a bit).

First, I have no answer – either to ‘Islam and the World’ or to ‘Christianity and the World.’ [Another aside: You might also remember, gentle reader, that I have had the privilege to spend many hours over many years engaging Muslims in a number of settings and that I almost always left feeling humbled by their deep faith and trust in God. In addition, the three major monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam are the ‘People of the Book’ in many ways we are kindred spirits, if not siblings.]  Although I have no answer, I have some thoughts and considerations about ‘Christianity and the World.’

There is in Christianity (and in Buddhism as we know – and in other faith-traditions) a powerful tradition of contemptus mundi (in addition to my developing a discipline of deep meditation, my time in the monastery also provided me with some neat Latin phrases).  The English translation: Contempt for the World!

The original intent for Christians was to provide them a certain freedom of action, a distance, a detachment from (the world), indeed a liberation from care without which the question of love for all people would be irrelevant.  For Christians, St. Paul provides us a challenging guide:

 If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.

 Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Sadly this powerful concept of contemptus mundi has become, at best, a formality for Christians.  How did this happen?  With hindsight at our disposal, it is clear that it was bound to happen.  As we humans continued our own development as ‘thinking beings’ (some would say, ‘rational beings’ but given the state of our politics today ‘irrational beings’ might be a more appropriate choice of words – but once again, I digress) we chose to separate ‘spiritual’ and ‘secular’ (the ‘big separation’ occurred during the middle-ages).

Contemptus mundi was transformed (transform = a fundamental change in character or structure).

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I recently returned from a trip to Denver, Colorado.  While there I spent the day with an intriguing organization and offered the folks there a significant number and variety of questions to consider.  Since returning home I have been thinking (mostly at a preconscious level) about the concept of ‘Inquiry.’  There are a number of different types of inquiry and this morning I have decided to share two with you.  So, without further ado, I invite you, gentle reader, to ‘Consider Inquiry.’

The first type of inquiry, and for me the most important type, is Relational Inquiry.  Relational Inquiry is rooted in my curiosity and interest in the other as a fully human being.  Getting to know and understand the other enables me to minimize my own biases and preconceptions about the other.  I also inquiry from a place of not knowing – the other is my teacher, if you will – and in doing so I seek to honor the other.

I seek to inquire in such a way that the other feels safe and will choose to reveal more of him/herself to me.  I want to send a message that I am truly interested in him/her as a fully human being.  I want to send a message that I am truly curious about ‘what is on their mind.’  I have learned, via hard lessons, that if I am not really interested in the other that he/she will know this (no matter how hard I try to ‘fake it’).  My motive is ‘deep interest in the other’ – this is conveyed by the types of questions I ask, by my body language, tone of voice, timing, emotional tone, etc.

For Relational Inquiry to be helpful and affirming I must listen first in order to understand and in seeking to understand the other I honor the other as a unique, fully human being.

The second type of inquiry, one that frequently emerges as I engage in the first, is Analytic Inquiry.  The other has responded to my inquiry and has provided me with information about him/her self.  In response I choose to inquire further about the information.  In doing so I begin to steer the conversation; I might also begin to influence the other’s mental process in unknown ways or in ways not intended by either of us.  I must strive to become aware of my purpose for using inquiry to ‘steer the process.’  ‘Why,’ ‘What,’ and ‘How’ questions tend to steer the conversation and are, by their nature, analytic.

In framing Analytic Inquiries I might focus on the others’ ‘feelings and reactions.’  A common inquiry is: ‘How did you feel about that?’  ‘What reactions did that trigger in you?’  It is crucial for me to strive to remember that as ‘innocent’ and ‘supportive’ as these questions seem to be they can ‘take over’ the process and ‘put me in control’ of where the process now goes.  I might actually inquire so that the other goes to a place that he/she is not ready to go to (thus I manipulate the other).

In framing Analytic Inquiries I might also focus on the ‘Causes and Motives.’  ‘Why did that happen?’  ‘What may have caused you to…?’  Now, it seems to me, that I am forcing the other to join me in figuring stuff out – am I simply striving to satisfy my own curiosity?

There are also inquiries that are Action Oriented.  ‘What have you attempted to do up to this time?’  ‘What are you going to choose to do now?  The danger here is that these questions can more powerfully direct the other and they are more likely the questions that can powerfully influence the others’ mental process.  These questions can be extremely helpful and they can support dis-ease or harm.  They can be helpful if they are truly rooted in a place of ‘not knowing’ and they can be dis-eased if they are used to direct the other to places of my choosing (they are, ‘self-serving’).

There are additional ‘Inquiry Methods’ but these will suffice for today.  As Robert K. Greenleaf noted many years ago: Seek first to understand!’



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