A Case for a Daily Reflective Practice

We all have our routines each day: brushing our teeth, dressing ourselves, exercise perhaps, making our coffee. Those routines are largely around caring for our physical selves.

Some may also have a cognitive routine, such as reading the paper, watching the news, reading their book, or a relational practice, such as checking in with a loved one or playing with the dog.   Many have a spiritual routine, such as prayer, meditation or even enjoying being outdoors, or an environmental routine such as tidying the kitchen, checking the weather, closing a window.

In other words, our lives have many facets, and I imagine that few of us actually attend to each domain on a regular and frequent basis. Fortunately, each domain probably does not need daily attention – I’m not going to check my checking account balance every day – but perhaps our routines merit some consideration. For example, we all attend to our physical health every day. Why not our emotional/psychological? Isn’t that equally important?

I never really gave a reflective practice, one where I check in with myself on a psychological, emotional and spiritual level, much thought until the last few years. I was fiiinnne, until I wasn’t. Now I find that some kind of reflection at least 3-4 times per week is not only SOP but also necessary for my psychological well-being. It’s not so much I need my happy-exercise. I find reflection is also important for my learning and processing.

In the old days, I was pretty much in my head 24/7, thoughts whirling constantly.   Now I try to stay present with my mind clear most of the day, with periods where I am still and quiet, and just invite thoughts to enter. Some thoughts I will reflect upon, others I will discard. That reflection time allows my inner thoughts, ideas, and connections to be recognized and processed.

Modern best practices also incorporate reflection into the education process. Part of my education was recent enough to include reflection but part was not. Though the content was vastly different in each case, I do feel that reflection does impact my ability to learn, process and integrate both academic and personal lessons alike.

Those personal lessons may not necessarily come in the form of books and lectures these days. But my life lessons are equally important: What did I learn about myself/others/our world today? How do those lessons impact me or others? What can I do differently or better? What’s a more constructive or productive perspective? How can I help?

I know in our busy lives we don’t have time for one more thing on our To Do list. But I argue: What is really more important than psychological and emotional housekeeping and maintenance? You don’t want your physical (house), financial (bank account), or physiologic (your body) homes crashing down upon you. They each deserve your time and attention. And so does the inner you.

Connectedness Strength – Scientific Evidence

‘We are all connected’ always had a squishy, metaphysical, woo-woo kind of connotation to it until I learned about it as strength that helps people to be successful.   There are times that I have also had that sense of connection, completion, one-with-the-universe (OWTU) feeling though I usually have not associated it with any specific use other than feeling great.

But there is new research around this phenomenon, which is called coherence.  Coherence refers to connection – whether between individuals and their environment or within one’s self.  The phenomenon of coherence results in positive emotion and a sense of unity or oneness.  Physiologically, coherence produces synchronous communication between heart and brain.

Since this psychophysiological connection appears to be mediated through the vagal nerve, coherence can be indirectly measured through physiologic variables such as  heart rate variability (HRV).  HRV is believed to sensitively reflect heart-brain communication and to be a strong measure of health and well-being, especially as it relates to heart health and stress management.  Apparently, HRV reflects the balance between the sympathetic (flight-or-flight) and parasympathetic (housekeeping) nervous systems.

Personality types (as measured by the Big Five and temperament inventories) influences one’s ability to maintain a low HRV (the less variability, the better).     For example, do you tend to respond to stress with fight-or-flight or a sense that you are OWTU?  Your personality, to some degree, dictates that response.

Ah, I feel a bit vindicated now!

But I’m not off the hook. Though we may not want to change who we are per se, we may want to moderate and manage our personality so that we may be most effective in all aspects of our lives.  That’s sort of what maturity is all about, right?   Indeed, I spent much of my misspent youth doing the fight/flight response to some of the smallest of life obstacles instead of responding with equanimity and wisdom.

Given that I do have some choice in my behavior, personality not withstanding, I can foster this connectedness strength, even though it’s not high on my strengths list. For example, coherence is produced by slow, deep breathing, relaxation, sleep and positive emotion such as appreciation.    For me, simply being mindful and using perspective helps me to cultivate a healthier response to stress.  As you might imagine, responding with aggression or avoidance tends to have the opposite effect.

In other words, effectively managing stress fosters that heart-brain coherence and ultimately, health, resilience and well-being.   In a wonderful and ironic win-win, the sense that we are all connected also helps me to take life in stride.  Our interconnection also implies that I have a responsibility to you to maintain my equanimity in the face of adversity.  I shouldn’t give you my emotional crap.  And visa versa.  So if you can’t take care of yourself for your own sake, do it for those around you.  It’s not selfish to take care of yourself.  It’s necessary for all of our benefit.  Our heart-brain connections thank you!

Resource:  http://www.heartmath.org/research/research-library/research-library.html

 

Art and the Humanities Shift Our Perspective

The good life or well-being, also known as eudaimonia are described by Seligman (2011) as consisting of PERMA (positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and accomplishment).   The attainment of this complex but important state can be argued to be one of man’s central life pursuits.   To the degree this is true, then man’s attention and expression will reflect this pursuit.  Thus, since the humanities are a form of human expression, and our expression will reflect our pursuit of well-being, the humanities can help individuals develop a better understanding of well-being.  Lessons in how to live a meaningful and good life are evident and pervasive in great works of literature, art, religion and philosophy (for example, Pawelski, 2013; de Botton, 2013).  However, visual art forms such as paintings often use an important and effective mechanism to foster well-being, i.e. through improving perspective.

 Using the arts to change perspective may take many forms.  First, creating art can change the artist’s perspective.  As summarized by Ivanhoe (2013),  joy and self-transcendence are available to the masters when they lose themselves in their work when the work becomes of a second, acquired but spontaneous nature according to Kongzi (Confucious).  That self-transcendence broadens the artist’s perspective beyond themselves and their daily experience.

Second, while an artist is engaged in the creative process, positive emotion and mood repair may result.    Mood repair mediated by positive emotion is more effective than pathways that employ venting or distraction (Dalebroux, Goldstein & Winner, 2008).    Dalebroux also states that rumination can extend the duration of negative emotion, but when used properly, rumination can help one move forward and grow when facing a challenge.

When positive emotion such as joy and self-transcendence exist as often occurs during the creation of art, an individual’s perspective changes via a phenomenon called Broaden and Build.  According to Fredrickson (2009), with positive emotion comes a more expansive perspective, creativity and integration.   The latter creates excellence and achievement thus creating more positive emotion, resulting in a positive upward spiral of well-being.    To the degree that this wider perspective and creativity can then be conveyed through the art form itself to the viewer, listener or reader, then the artist can subsequently grow and enhance the well-being of others.

Though much remains unknown about the impact of the humanities on the viewer, reader or listener, the recipient of an art form can benefit in many ways from the broader perspective of the artist and enhance their well-being.    According to Ivanhoe (2013), Konzi says that listening to music has an enchanting power that “arises from our underlying desire to discover, fit into, and give ourselves over to something larger and more meaningful than our personal pleasures and desires.”     Västfjäll, Juslin, & Hartig (2012 ) describe how listening to music can improve physical health, create positive emotions , diminish negative emotions, and help one feel energized.   In other words, the observer’s well-being may be enhanced by art because of increases in meaning, positive emotion, feeling energized and a net improvement in health.

The broadened perspective of the artist or writer may also help the observer broaden their own perspective.  For example, cognitive reappraisal is identified as one possible mechanism by which music mitigates stress (Västfjäll, Juslin, & Hartig, 2012) . Similarly, an important philosophical tool called reflective equilibrium requires one to use an iterative approach to consider multiple perspectives in explaining as many of the facts as possible (Tiberius, 2013), thus widening the perspective of both philosopher and reader.

Perhaps this perspective shift and subtle changes in wisdom is what draws us to participate in the humanities.  How will you shift your perspective today?

Reources:

Dalebroux, A., Goldstein, T. R., & Winner, E. (2008). Short-term mood repair through art-making: Positive emotion is more effective than venting. Motivation and Emotion, 32, 288-295. doi: 10.1007/s11031-008-9105-1.

de Botton, A., & Armstrong, J. (2013). Art as Therapy. London: Phaidon Press.

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking research reveals how to embrace the hidden strength of positive emotions, overcome negativity, and thrive. New York: Crown Publishers.

Ivanhoe, P. J. (2013). Happiness in early Chinese thought. In S. David, I. Boniwell, & A. Conley Ayers (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of happiness (pp. 326-336). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pawelski, J. O., & Moores, D. J. (Eds.). (2013). The eudaimonic turn: Well-being in literary studies. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011).  Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and wellbeing. New York: Free Press.

Tiberius, V. (2013).  Philosophical methods in happiness research.  In  S. A. David, I. Boniwell, A.C. Ayers, (Eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Happiness.  (pp. 315-325). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Västfjäll, D., Juslin, P. N., & Hartig, T. (2012). Music, subjective wellbeing, and health: The role of everyday emotions. In R. MacDonald, G. Kreutz, & L. Mitchell (Eds.), Music, health, and wellbeing (pp. 405-423). Oxford: Oxford University Press.