Questions and the Art of Reflection

October 20, 2012: Questions and the Art of Reflection

Today I am proud to say that I am putting the finishing touches on my first book about journal writing. That means, of course, that I have to go about getting it published, so wish me luck! The rest of the news is that I am starting this blog, Journal Writing 1-2-3, and I hope you will follow along with me as I write more entries about how to make the most of the journal writing experience.

My point of view is that a journal should help you in your life. It should help you find your way through confusing times, and it should help you understand the world better. It should help you develop your own philosophy as you take the time to go deeply into the subjects that concern you. Then your writing can become a rich source of self-guidance, inspiration and possibility. With this kind of writing, you can help yourself through tough times, and you can celebrate the good parts of your life.

Writing a chronicle of your life is sometimes useful, but a journal can be more than a diary. Writing in a journal can be a journey of self-discovery. It can take you from uncertainty to certainty about your life and the course that you will follow. It can help you examine your goals and make sense of your past. It also can help you solve the problems you bring to any writing session. It can help you turn disaster into success.

When we write thoughtfully, we learn the art of reflection. Thoughtful reflection on any topic allows us to understand what matters most and what is important to know. We already know part of what we should know—reflection teaches us what else is there to be discovered. But many of us have not learned the art of reflection: we think about things, but we do not know how to go from question to deeper understanding. To do this, we need to understand the journal as an ongoing inquiry into what is important in life.

That is the sense in which I use my journal. I ask questions about my life and the people in it. I ask about how I can proceed when I am not certain, when I have choices to make and when I have to plan ahead for important actions I must take. I ask questions when I want to understand, and then I seek to answer my own questions. I lay out what I know and what I do not know, and I look for connections that will inform me about the bigger picture. Then I see what matters and what is important.

In a nutshell, that is the process of reflection. Writing for understanding is a process we have to learn: we do not start out being able to lay out the pieces of our life and then look for the connections between them. We start out being puzzled or worried or hurt by something that has happened; we start out not knowing our own questions. So our first concern is knowing what to ask—we are asking how our world works, and we need to be able to put that down in words.

What is my question today? What concerns me and what has me worried? Why does something I care about seem so difficult to achieve? What stops me or holds me back? What is it I really want, and how do I get it in my life? What are my goals, and how do I plan to meet them? These are all questions we could ask. We could ask about problems we have or people we want to understand. We could ask questions about what something means to us. We could try to understand our own emotions.

Asking the right question is important. A good way to start is to ask, “What do I need to ask today?” What is the subject of your inquiry? What do you need to know, figure out and understand? What matters right now? The right question will stretch your understanding—it will take you from places where you are certain to places that confuse you. Then you will ask other questions, but you always come back to the main question. That is the one you need to be answered.

Examples are always helpful:

“What do I need to ask today? I am confused about the changes at work. Am I at risk for downsizing and losing my job? I work hard, and I know all the systems, but is my job essential? Will the new owners think I am essential and decide to keep me? Those questions are on my mind, but I need a better question. I need to think about what I can do. Am I prepared for a job transition? What do I need to do to get ready to move on if I have to? If I stay, there will be new systems to learn, but I can do that. What I really need to know is what I have to do to get ready to move on? If I have those answers, I can handle the changes that are coming—no matter which way things go.

Now we have a helpful question. Now we can prepare. A good question takes us somewhere new: instead of worrying about losing a good job, we can make plans. We can sidestep worry and go directly to planning. If we spent time writing about our worries and fears, we would stir up doubts and strong emotions. If we spent time complaining about the job and the owners who created this difficulty, we would waste our time. What we need is a question that helps us adapt, that helps us be resilient enough to weather change. In this case, we need a question that leads to a solution.

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