“The soul speaks its truth only under quiet, inviting, and trustworthy conditions.” ― Parker J. Palmer (1999).
A colleague and I were writing proposals for a conference we have been invited to speak at. We were joking that given the time allowed for the presentation, we would be doing a ‘lite’ version of our schtick because there was no space for reflection. Both of us have a great admiration for the work of author Parker J Palmer, who is a passionate advocate for reflective practice. He comes from a Quaker tradition which is built around the cultivation of quiet for the softly spoken voice within to emerge and reveal its truth.
I often have corporate clients that want me to deliver leadership programs to them, programs that ask their people for big shifts in consciousness and behavioural change, but they come with the caveat that everyone is so busy, can it be crammed into a day or a half day. Leadership lite. Reflection is as neurological as it is mind-based. The act of reflection is a marker that our nervous systems feel safe, that we are comfortably inhabiting our pre-frontal cortex and able to apply the lofty mechanisms of analysis and reflection.
These functions cannot happen when we are in a state of nascent limbic arousal, when we are constantly scanning for threats and danger. All we are capable of then is allowing our bodies to prepare for flight, fight or freeze, which are autonomic actions, requiring neither thought nor reflection.
Our reflection-lite lives are indicative of the paradox we live in. While our geographic savannahs are abundantly free from lions, tigers and marauders coming at us and our kin, our internal savannahs are a warzone of trauma and UXBs. As the horror movies show us, the terrifying telephone call is coming from inside the house. Yet we continue to look outside of ourselves to soothe and find safety. Our marathons of externalised numbing [insert your favourite here: food, booze, sex, drugs, gambling, shopping, gaming] to wrangle our sympathetic nervous systems back to rest and digest are a placebo for the real work of reflection and compassionate enquiry in the regulation process.
It is not a coincidence that all the world’s spiritual traditions include a reflective practice. This isn’t because the faithful are anxious, it is because it allows us to be still and contemplative from a place of gratitude and grace. Reflective practice opens up the possibility for the time and space for us to see ourselves from the position of an observer, allowing us to dis-identify from our thoughts and minds. We are not our bodies, we are not our thoughts, we are not our situations, they are simply an impermanent aspect of who we are in a moment in time.
With an observer’s view we can see this truth more clearly, bring compassion to our inner dialogues, create the internal resources to soothe ourselves and in doing so, bring our nervous systems into regulation through creating a safe place for ourselves in ourselves.
The very act of doing this is so powerful, so self-reliant. Add a slow breath into reflection and it is a transformative visceral experience of calm. As many of our traumas have occurred in childhood or even in utero, we often have very little consciousness as to the extent of what is driving our neurological reactions and system triggers, and far less capacity to have autonomy over them. By learning to reflect, inquire, and observe what is happening in the inner worlds then self-resource, we are able to regain our equanimity.
Reflection doesn’t need a temple or a church or a mosque or a pyramid in the desert. It just needs moments of quiet and the will to examine the unexamined with curiosity and compassion. A reflective life isn’t life lite. It is a whole life, rich with experiences, able to weather the breadth and depth of emotion with resilience, abundant with love and gratitude.
Make time for it. Make it a practice. Defend that time as a non-negotiable in your self-care, and observe your mind and body come into coherence moment by moment, breath by breath.