Our capacity for self-knowledge distinguishes humans from other animals. We are the only creatures truly capable of knowing themselves. While self-knowledge can be generated in other ways (such as through consultation or comparison with another), reflection must be seen as a primary avenue by which people come to understand themselves and their experiences.

The English word “reflect” comes from the Latin reflectere, which means to turn back upon something. Reflection is when we turn our thoughts back to our own thinking. In this manner, 17th-century English philosopher John Locke defined reflection as follows: “That notice which the mind takes of its own operations and the manner of them.”

For 19th-century American philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey, reflection is “active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusion to which it tends.” Dewey emphasizes that we do not learn from our experiences; we learn from reflecting on our experiences.

Lately, I have been exploring the process of praxis — a cycle of action — reflection in which we cease to perform routine habitual actions, contemplate upon what we are doing, and then bring our actions into alignment with our ethics and concerns for the world. This essay develops this line of enquiry by focusing on the process of self-reflection.

Sometimes the reflective process can unfold in the following manner. We are engaged in habitual action when some triggering event interrupts our normal routine. New information or introduction to a new group of people forces us to reassess what we have done so many times before. Through a range of mental processes we come to develop a new perspective on the matter. Fresh insight on our habit leads us to consider a new approach to doing things. Afterward, we might recommit ourselves to sustaining the changes in our behavior and attitude.

Of course, there are other types of reflective processes. For example, we can specifically set aside time to contemplate an issue or an experience we have had. After an engaging retreat with my colleagues I might take some time to journal about my experiences at the retreat and turn my thoughts to what I have learned.

As stated, I am most interested here in exploring that action — reflection process that leads to potential changes in our habitual actions. What types of things are we able to reflect upon?

First, we might consider what we are doing. By this I mean our conscious goals and desired results. What are our intentions in this situation? What motivates our action?

Second, we might think about how we are doing it. What are the means by which we are attempting to accomplish our goal? Might there be other, alternative ways to accomplish the same goal?

Third, we could consider what we should be doing. By this I suggest contemplating the ethical nature of our actions. Concerns for justice, power and domination might be brought to mind. Included here would be explicitly pondering the potential unintended consequences of our actions that could be harmful.

Fourth, we turn our mind’s eye to our own mental activities. A central aspect of reflection is our capacity to distance ourselves from those activities and call them into question. What was going through our head as we did the activity? What was our reasoning process? What were our taken-for-granted assumptions and tacit knowledge? What emotional states were activated?

Finally, we reflect upon others and the world. How do they perceive the event and us (their so-called “reflected appraisals”)? We attempt to have empathy for other people and our world.

Reflection is a deliberative process of prolonged and thoughtful contemplation on our lived experiences in the world. We attempt to use these past actions as springboards for learning about ourselves and our environment. Reflections reveal the limits of our knowledge.

Our thinking is often pervaded by cultural myths and ideological assumptions. The hope is that through reflection upon our beliefs that we can gain a critical consciousness on our role and potential as human agents.

Of course, reflection is not a magical process that guarantees better results and improved modes of thinking and acting. We often rationalize our already existing belief system and fail to truly scrutinize it. Reflection cannot help when we are unaware of the real causes of our beliefs.

Moreover, there is the problem of infinite regress. Prior belief A is reflected upon and then discarded by new idea B, which upon further reflection leads to C, ad infinitum. Do we ever end up with sure-proof knowledge about any event? Perhaps not. What is important is the continual process of investigation.

Many different types of skills are potentially involved in the reflective process. Centrally, to reflect upon an event is to use critical thinking to extensively probe and question our thoughts and actions. The ability to understand the dynamics and complexities of larger systems is crucial for us to understand how our actions are connected to the greater whole.

The more we are able to explicitly probe our underlying assumptions, the better. It is the questioning of what we have previously believed that opens the door to forming new beliefs. Other skills that are important potentially include introspection, abstraction (the ability to formulate the common features found in specific events) and empathy (the ability to recognize the emotions that others are feeling).

The moments in which we stop what we are doing and reflect upon our actions I sometimes refer to as “the sacred pause” because of their vast spiritual potential. These contemplative moments in which we re-evaluate our habitual modes of being in the world and consider the well-being of humanity can open our hearts and minds to truly spiritual actions.

Silence, mindfulness, contemplation and discernment allow the mind to calm down and focus clearly on what is at hand. Sometimes, we direct our thoughts to certain topics or concerns and metaphorically “send them out to the world.” Other times, we clear our minds of thoughts and attempt to just be with the breath, focusing on the embodied sensations of the moment. And at other times, we attempt to open our minds and hearts and be receptive to the wisdom of the universe.

Through contemplation the individual brings aspects of him or herself into focus and becomes more fully aware of the interconnectedness of life. The spiritual transformational potential of contemplation includes:

» Deep, focused attention that dissolves our preconceptions so that we can observe situations as they truly are.

» Putting ourselves in another’s shoes as a way to bear witness to the suffering and pain of others.

» Paying attention to what is in our hearts.

» Remaining open to outcomes and remaining unattached.

» Conceiving of loving action toward others and ourselves.

» Recommitting ourselves to nonviolence, reverence for life, solidarity, justice, democratic practice and sustainability.

The idea that the world can be changed through our actions and interventions is a defining feature of modernity. We are no longer tied to the past as we were in earlier societies, in which actions were legitimated by their relation to tradition, and were defended because that was “the way things have always been done.” No longer justifying our actions by traditions frees us to create new and different realities, new and different social worlds.

Highly skilled workers of all types (medicine, law, business) are now often trained to be “reflective practitioners,” a termed introduced by Donald Schön to conceptualize independent professionals reflecting upon situations they encounter in their professional worlds and drawing lessons out of their experiences.

In our modern world, everything is open to reflection, including the process of reflection itself. This can leave us with an overriding feeling of uncertainty.

When our minds take long, sober and attentive looks at ourselves, at the conditions of our past actions, and find that we do not fully like what we see, we feel an urge to change. We can consciously discard what we once were unconsciously doing.

Societies and their members are seemingly becoming more self-aware, reflective and, hence, reflexive. Social practices are continually examined and reformed based upon new information about those practices.

Society, in this version, is both subject and object of rational intervention. We are aware that our practices have the ability to alter the course of history (even if only slightly). We alter our behavior in light of what we learn about the world, and we are aware that through our changed behavior we, in turn, change the world.

We can consciously change the world through reflecting on our habitual actions, gaining insight into our complicity with the status quo, and then altering our actions so that they live up to our ethical ideals. Praxis can begin with personal change but lead to global transformation.

I see this mindset as a triumph that serves to overthrow the oppressive strictures of habit and tradition, allowing us to better reach our potential. When we question taken-for-granted positions and assumptions, are suspicious of received ideas and aware of presuppositions, we demystify the state of the world, and hopefully take steps to make it better.

— Wayne Mellinger, Ph.D., is a social justice activist living in Santa Barbara and social worker for the homeless. He is on the board of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE).

Wayne Martin Mellinger Ph.D. is a social justice educator, writer and activist in Santa Barbara. He serves on the boards of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE-SB), Showers of Blessing, the Committee for Social Justice and the Santa Barbara County Behavioral Wellness Commission and Continuum of Care. The opinions expressed are his own.