The Lost Art of Reflection
You would think that I as a writer should know this and use it. But it took two friends—Joe Byerly and Ryan Holiday—to open my mind to this practice.
Or, more accurately, self-reflection.
Joe Byerly has a new book out (with Cassie Crosby) called My Green Notebook. Highly recommended, by the way. The “green notebook” is literally a notebook that the army gives to its young officers. (As an enlisted man, I never heard of it.) Its purpose is to jot down “lessons learned.”
Sounds really dumb, doesn’t it? But if you try it, it’s amazing how helpful the practice can be.
The Stoics exercised reflection daily, according to Ryan Holiday. Read Marcus Aurelius. Or Seneca or Zeno or Epictetus.
The idea is at the end of the day to take a few minutes, preferably with pen and paper or laptop, and ask yourself, “What did I learn today?”
Just as an example from my own demented psyche, I’ve been involved lately in an unwanted dispute. As I was driving on the highway a couple of days ago, I realized that despite all the unpleasantness, I really had no ill will toward the person I’ve been clashing with. I held nothing against him. I saw our disagreement as no one’s fault—just a consequence of differing needs and points of view. I could definitely get past it. I could go forward with a clean slate.
This was a revelation to me. I had no idea I felt that way. I thought, “I should write Person X and tell him that I hope we can put this kerfuffle behind us and go forward in a positive frame of mind.”
As writers and artists, you and I will have more professional reflections as well.
“Chapter Six is too long. Go back and cut it.”
“Great name for a character—Fred Knipsia.” (I’m stealing this from my friend Norm Stahl.).
The act of reflecting is not like meditation. It’s more like conscious self-assessment. But there’s an element of self-surrender in it too. You have to “sit back” and let the buried stuff rise to the surface.
I realized taking up this practice that there was one area in which I’ve been doing something similar for years.
I’m a huge believer in recording and interpreting (if you can) the dreams and even nightmares that come to you in sleep.
Oddly enough—or perhaps not so oddly—I had a corresponding dream to the revelation above, just two nights later.
Bottom line: I highly recommend this Stoic/Green Notebook practice. It’s like a sailor or a wilderness trekker taking their navigational bearings at the end of the day.
You realize where you are. It helps.
Thank you dear Steve and all friends here,
Years ago I could tell from intuition that I wasn’t thinking systematically enough. My mind was and is chaotic so I can’t reflect easily, it’s like a burden. Maybe a ton of Resistance.
I used to envy, and still do, those who can reflect heavily. I have a friend, she is a lady, who I think has reflected every bit of her life, even the smallest detail. Although she’s not a reader, a beautiful form of human wisdom -not necessarily perfected but rich- springs from her speech when we talk about things.
The last big reminder of reflection -before your today’s post- was from mr. John Steinbeck a few days ago, from the East of Eden letters. I marked many passages where he seemed to think a lot, like this:
“When I work on a book to this extent and with this concentration, it means that I’m living another life. As it goes along, increasingly I give to the second life more than the first. Then I must be very hard to live with in real life, not because I am mean but because I am vague. Things ordinarily done are forgotten. My expression must be one of fogged stupidity – my responses slow. It is during this time that a woman gets first restless, then uneasy, then angry. […] And a book like this goes on for such a long time. You can read it in a few days but it takes years to think and write ”
I wish I could immerse so much on all important things. I know there is a way, but it’s heavily blocked with Resistance. Thanks for the Green Notebook and the night discipline!
Very nice, Tolis. As I was reading Steve’s post and your reply, I kept thinking I should have a “green notebook” by the bed to write down my dreams. I have a very strange recurring dream about a beached humpback whale. The whale is healthy. There is no stress. It’s a very calming dream. From memory (this sounds completely bonkers) it seems to be on the shore of the fresh water Lake Michigan with Chicago’s skyline in the background. It’s twilight. Nothing about it makes sense, but the whale’s eye looks at me. I look at it and feel peace. Intuition and my own insight through self-reflection once I am coherent could make for some neat discoveries. I’m hoping my green notebook will do the trick!
“Just as an example from my own demented psyche” made me laugh out loud. 🙂
Hi, Kate! Thank you for replying.
What a wonderful dream! It also reminds me of the dynamics of some very revealing dreams that Steve shared through his books. I think it hides a good number of important revelations for you, but I also liked the aesthetics of the whale, beached calmly on the Lake with a beautiful Skyline on the background.
A few weeks ago, Steve proposed a book about exploring your dreams and finding and acting on truths that they reveal about your self. It has nothing to do with those “ready symbols” that dream-books use, but rather it gives you nice and wonderful tools to find out the most about your dream, and even put your consciousness inside it if you wish, so that you can communicate with all the details that it reveals from your subconscious. My mind almost exploded when I found out. Just in case you haven’t got it, it’s the Inner Work by Robert Johnson.
Thank you for your kind reply, Tolis! I just added it to my Good Reads list. I wonder, since it is a recurring dream, if my subconscious is trying to slap the message across my face like “HEY!! LISTEN”!!
That’s exactly it. Reoccurring dreams are important because they’re messages, intel or solutions that you’ve asked for. It’s up to you to translate your own dream symbols and decode the message. I’ve been analyzing my dreams my entire life. There’s no such thing as a bad dream. They all contain insightful intel that we need. Good luck with yours. 🙂
I love the idea of the green notebook. I am bedeviled by resistance and have been for a long time. It’s been so difficult to get anything constructive done, much less writing, although I think about writing all the time. Maybe these daily reflections will pull my chaotic brain into some sort of order an I’ll be able to put words on paper again. Thanks, Steve., and thanks everyone for your thoughtful responses. This creative life is such a lonely one. It really helps to know I’m not really alone.
Thank you Steve. May I recommend another of Ryan Holiday’s books? The Daily Stoic, 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perserverance, and the Art of Living is a gem. The last musings are related to death. I read these as I observe my own father’s last dealings with life. Oh, but I wish I had recorded the lessons of dying on paper, the beautiful along with the ugly. Today there is still time to do so. For these lessons are recorded in my heart. Thanks for the reminder of putting resistance aside. What is recorded can be shared. We can become better people from sharing. Wishing all beautiful days in life.
Jackie, 366 Meditations looks like a wonderful book. I’ve just bought the eBook. thank you!!
You are welcome Peter. I hope inspiration comes to you through the writings as it does for me. Happy reading,
A few days ago, Mr. John Steinbeck reminded us of the need of introspection in the East of Eden letters, and your piece today is the first major reminder of reflection I’ve had in a while. I underlined several examples of deep thought, such as this one:
I like the part where you are emphasizing that what have I learned, I guess its the sign of human nature to improve and deep down you will feel better and nothing will turn up against you, consider my example during lockdown I learned a lot from graphic designing courses to online cooking classes, it helped me understand the dynamics to be improved person, now I have a established logo design company and a restaurant, all I gave was my pure heart and soul.
Congratulations Rudy! Self reflection brings out our true self, our pure self. Wishing you positive results in your endeavors.
Wow…looking back, reflecting as a way to move forward. Brilliant.
“The unexamined life is not worth living..” said some dude who lived 2500ish years ago. It might be our US culture, but we dismiss the old in favor of ‘new and improved’ nearly every time.
When I am firing on all cylinders, and life is productive, meaningful, and moving forward are when I consistently do the following: exercise in the morning, read something inspirational (Bible to Meditations to this webpage…I hope not to insult those deeply religious souls on this blog–but I frequently get more from this page than ancient/scriptural texts), meditate/pray and — journal.
Then I get lazy and complacent…and misinterpret any success I’m having with me and my own greatness, stop doing said practices for lazy reasons (too rainy to run right now, I”ll lift in the evening…too busy to write, because I am more interested in fear-porn current events, too busy to journal–cuz, you know, I got this…)
As I read the post and comments, I realized that journaling and reflection (for me) are acts of humility. I am unsure, and the humble act of trying to capture my thoughts on paper seems to be a roadmap to my higher self/God/infinite.
Thank you and Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays to all! I’m lacing my pumped up kicks right now to head out for a run in the rain….then I’ll journal/reflect when I return.
Thank you for posting this Brian:
“misinterpret any success I’m having with me and my own greatness, stop doing said practices for lazy reasons”. Eating a slice of humble pie now as I reflect on the creative excuses I’ve come up with recently to avoid problems. I think walking (or running) is a fabulous way to get the gears moving. Best of luck with the journaling!
Wonderful! Thanks for this positive suggestion. Merry Christmas!
Thanks for sharing it with us, Steve.
I’ve been doing something similar to this. I call it a “personal diary”. I learned that from a close friend.
It’s pretty much what you have just described. However, I make my best not to overthink it. The idea is to summarize any lesson learned from that day into a single sentence or a quote.
It’s quite amazing when we get to the point of searching for ideas or principals applied in real world issues while coping with ordinary daily life stuff. This practice has led me to a more meaningful life.
When I was nine, my mother gave me one of those journals where each page had room for five years of reflection. So on January 1st, for example, you could see what mattered to you exactly a year earlier.
Can you imagine how quickly I become hooked on journalism, so to speak?
A journal saves your life. Literally, because you have a record of what happened. And figuratively, because you take the messy out of your head. You get enough distance from it to see it more clearly. You notice more easily what made you feel good, so you can do more of it — and what drained you, so you can do less. You can record the nice things people say about you, and have a pick-me-up that lasts much longer than a donut or a cocktail.
You can also see where so much of your inspiration comes from. Like here!
P.S. Kate, I forwarded yesterday’s exchange to “my” Kate — and she asked me to tell you she loves you! 🙂
Your Kate is precious, Maureen!! She has the gift of artful conversation just like her mother!
St. Ignatius Loyola (1491 – 1556) was an expert in the lost art of reflection. You would enjoy his daily practice of “The Examen,” Steve.
1. Place yourself in God’s presence. Give thanks for God’s great love for you.
2. Pray for the grace to understand how God is acting in your life.
3. Review your day — recall specific moments and your feelings at the time.
4. Reflect on what you did, said, or thought in those instances. Were you drawing closer to God, or further away?
5. Look toward tomorrow — think of how you might collaborate more effectively with God’s plan. Be specific.
Fr James Martin has daily guided audio of this reflection in podcast form you can find if you search for “The Examen”. About 17 minutes of guided reflection in the St. Ignatian tradition that is beautiful to fall asleep to.
This is perfect! Thank you. I subscribed to the podcast. While principles are important, I find very specific ‘how-to, next-step’ type of coaching the best. Thank you and Merry Christmas!
Jeff, it’s interesting that Loyola’s habit is almost exactly the content of the ‘Five Minute Journal’, as enthused over by Steve’s buddy Tim Ferriss, amongst others. A practice of gratitude, and training yourself to notice the good things that happen, and asserting the good things that could happen during the coming day, and asking how you could improve the areas where you let yourself down. And stating an affirmation. Not in that order. there’s also a great quote each day, and an interesting preface explaining how all this generates benefit.
Whenever I’ve felt overwhelmed and very distressed the Five Minute Journal practice has certainly restored my wellbeing, and left a positive residue that persists a good long while.
When I was doing heavy dream work, I noticed the two day gap when the dreams commented on waking life events.
The key is not being a writer, it’s staying a writer.
– Harlan Ellison
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Thank you for highlighting reflection and our new book this week! I’ve learned so much from your blog and books over the years, it’s a great feeling knowing that I’m passing lessons from my own writing onto others -and some back to you!
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When I was doing heavy dream work, I noticed the two day gap when the dreams commented on waking life events. Amazon Ungating Services
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Thank you Steven. May I recommend another of Ryan Holiday’s books?
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