Tag: reflection

Making Room for Reflection in the Learning Process

By Craig Axford | Canada

Stillness is the sort of thing we don’t really appreciate until we have felt its absence for a while. The chance to sit and reflect upon our experiences is essential to integrating the learning we squeeze from them into our lives. That means occasionally putting our life on pause for a while, which is hardly a fashionable thing to do these days.

A few days ago, I completed the first of three residencies required by my master’s program. Each residency is three weeks in duration and, if the first one is any indication, they will all involve long days in the classroom followed by more hours of work on various projects stretching well into the evening.

This recent pedagogical sprint still leaves me rather dazed. Hundreds of PowerPoint slides, numerous spur of the moment classroom readings, and one major high-pressure group assignment left little room for anything like reflection. To figure out how, why and when to incorporate the learning of the past 21 days will likely require much more time than the residency itself took from my life. Even then, much of the program’s content will at best be only dimly remembered.

Education, at least in the form typically proceeded by the qualifier “public”, usually strives for efficiency. Getting the most information possible to the greatest number in the shortest time supposedly maximizes social benefit at minimum cost. The slow contemplative pace the academy was once known for is now seen as an indicator of waste.

But personal downtime is as valuable as time spent behind a desk listening while the professor clicks through her slides. So is time spent discussing the concepts being presented and debating their merits with others. Learning is not a passive process; nor can it be rushed liked a download via a highspeed Internet connection.

The word contemplation derives from the Latin templum, which translates as “a place for observation.” Temple likewise traces its roots to this Latin noun. By adding the prefix con to templum we literally have the phrase “with(in) a place for observation.” That’s a door no program, no matter how well designed, can force us to walk through. However, how our educational and corporate institutions operate can disincentivize making the effort.

Contemplation is not synonymous with the kind of instantaneous and often faulty observations we associate with witnessing a car accident or the rushed decisionmaking forced upon us by often arbitrary deadlines. A certain degree of intentionality is built into it.

I don’t blame the university, my professors, or the students I was studying with for the pace of my recent experience and the stress that it imposed. My program is designed for working adults, most of whom are either already working in the field they are studying or have some background in it. Few if any of my instructors or my classmates enjoy an abundance of spare time. However, that our lives have become so busy is all the more reason to put contemplation on the calendar.

We live in a culture that insists upon interrupting us at regular intervals. Making time for reflection and to play with the ideas we encounter is essential to getting the most from our experiences. That making room for contemplation requires more effort than it used to is no excuse for failing to do so.

Follow Craig on Twitter or read him on Medium.com

Other stories you may enjoy:

Grandma’s Painting
A reflection on art, memory & meaningmedium.com

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Grandma’s Painting

By Craig Axford | Canada

In spite of the fact I had been planning on returning with nothing more than a small backpack, the framed oil painting wasn’t a burden. Hidden behind the bubble wrap and the plastic bag protecting it from the vicissitudes of airline travel was the likeness of a deer that had already made a far more mysterious journey from my grandmother’s mind onto the canvass.

My grandmother — or grammy as I called her from about 18 months or so onward — has been gone for more than two decades. The painting will, hopefully, survive for far longer than either of us put together. Regardless, the deer browsing autumn leaves in the depths of some dark New England wood is destined to be a part of the scenery wherever I go. Friends that visit our home will perhaps notice and admire the work. Some subset of these might even comment on it, giving me a chance to say something about the painter.

Though I can’t say for sure, I don’t think my grandmother ever took any art classes. I remember seeing her easel set up in the living room from time to time during some of my visits as a small child, but I never actually saw her paint. If anyone else in the family saw her at work they have kept it to themselves. In my mind grammy as an artist remains a solitary figure engrossed in the act of creation next to the front windows of the home that my grandfather had constructed for them in the woods of Manomet, Massachusetts.

When she had finished a painting grammy would leave it on her easel with strict instructions not to touch it because the oil paint was still drying. It was her way of saying she had only just finished it and of showing it off. There was, after all, a room behind the kitchen where the painting could have dried without danger of being molested by an overly curious and underly cautious young boy.

Once, I arrived to find she had painted a pond we passed each Sunday on the way to church. She drew my attention to the rock in the middle of the pond. She had crowned it with a turtle. She told me it was the very same turtle that once caught my eye during one of those Sunday drives and which was the source of perpetual disappointment each Sunday thereafter when I failed to see it again. At last that elusive turtle wouldn’t be going anywhere. More than two decades after her death, I’m not sure where that painting currently hangs.

That she had thought to add that small creature to the rock made me feel loved. I don’t think I ever really appreciated her brushwork so much as I did at that moment. She had succeeded at doing what grandparents the world over aspire to do: confirm their grandchild’s belief that they rest at the center of the universe.

The story of the deer may be similar to that of the turtle. I can easily imagine us seeing it on one of our many walks through the woods on our way to Manomet Beach. Whether that was the case or not, a memory that fits the mold of that narrative has already begun to form without my having to will it into existence. Since the tale that explains my grammy’s inspiration has passed from knowable to unknowable, what really happened seems of little consequence at this point.

The Stone Age residents around Lascaux, France would have been a tighter knit community than our own modern counterparts. Then there were no jet airplanes or cars to move people across the country or around the world far from their birthplaces. There were no means of developing a friendship, let alone a romance, with someone on the other side of the planet using the camera on your laptop for a virtual get-together. The art adorning the cave walls of southern France wasn’t something a small child just happened to see during a short visit with grandma. It was the product of generations of education and effort; a vehicle for initiation as well as a work of art.

17,000-year-old cave drawing in Lascaux, France. Source: http://www.ancient-wisdom.com/caveart.htm

Seventeen thousand years ago in places such as southern France, the narratives like the one that I can’t resist building around my grandmother’s painting would have developed into the stuff of legend and myth. In such communities, the storytellers and artists would have been as essential as the hunters, gatherers, and warriors whose tales they embellished or manufactured. Art was not a passive presence to be glanced at casually now and then while hanging on the wall of a home or museum, but an active force in the lives of every individual. Meaning and memory would have been inseparable in such a setting.

Millennia ago, before writing, there weren’t any means of comparing notes to confirm the stories that both inspired and were inspired by the magical images dancing on the walls of torchlit caves were the same ones your parents and grandparents had heard. There were no fact checkers to ensure accuracy and consistency. Reality would have been embedded in the experience as opposed to something to be objectively observed from outside of it. The encyclopedic knowledge of the shaman, the hunter, and the healer that everyone so admired and counted on was all contained between the ears; the stories built around the curative powers of a particular plant or the habits of prey were the scaffolding that supported an important truth rather than the truth itself.

Now, in an age of words that survive on the page for centuries and of recordings that digitally record every verbal or bodily tic with fidelity it is consistency that we prize. Our societies are too complex and the decisions we must make too important for it to be otherwise.

Still, there is something to be said for having works of art in our life that enable us to reflect, imagine, and allow our memory to evolve without fear of contradiction. These are objects meant for interpretation and the exploration of meaning, not uncovering scientific or historic truths. Having something that empowers us to occasionally suspend disbelief is still an essential means of maintaining sanity in a world that, for the most part, requires us to remain grounded in reality.

Now that I’m older I regret not having the chance to talk to grammy about why she painted, where she found her inspiration, or what it was like to lose herself in the effort. Then again, perhaps her greatest gift to me is allowing her work to speak for itself so that a mystery at least as old as Lascaux could live on in some small measure. That’s the gift all artists strive to impart.

Like so many before her, my grandmother must have lost herself in the flow that comes naturally to those who regularly immerse themselves in a physical or creative activity. Time and the sense of self melt away and before we know it whole hours have gone as if they had been a blink of an eye. There is something mystical about these experiences that will forever remain ineffable. Athletes and nature lovers are also familiar with them. In these moments we become so much a part of the scene that only in retrospect do we even realize there was a scene at all. Art might only provide a glimpse of these transcendent spells, but in so doing it prepares us for the more direct encounters with them to come.

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The Frontier Isn’t Gone, It Just Isn’t Where We Thought

Craig Axford | United State

In his famous 1893 essay The Significance of the Frontier in American History, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner lamented the 1890 Census Report’s conclusion that the “frontier line” beyond which large tracts of unbroken land could still be found had ceased to exist. “Therefore,” the report concluded, the frontier would “no longer have a place in the census reports.”

Turner believed, not without good reason, that America’s character was substantially if not entirely a product of its first century of westward expansion. He summed his thesis up early, writing in the second paragraph:

The peculiarity of American institutions is, the fact that they have been compelled to adapt themselves to the changes of an expanding people — to the changes involved in crossing a continent, in winning a wilderness, and in developing at each area of this progress out of the primitive economic and political conditions of the frontier into the complexity of city life.

With the frontier more than a century and a quarter behind us— at least according to the US Census Bureau — American institutions were perhaps never as challenged by the physical presence of a frontier as individuals are now by its absence. Without a landscape to test and define us, we are left to shape our own lives without the former environmental constraints imposed by a hostile natural world that needed taming. That’s a great luxury few before us have enjoyed, but not one that comes without personal cost.

Modern humanity has largely forgotten that not so long ago Mother Nature was a much greater imminent threat than it is today. We set aside “wilderness areas” and engage in activities like skydiving in large part because contemporary society is so safe it’s now necessary to seek out opportunities to experience a little bit of danger. From vaccination and seatbelts to chlorinated water and coffee cups with temperature warnings, civilization has successfully marshaled its resources to protect us from disease and injury. Distances that brought the pioneers of the 19th century weeks of hardship we typically travel in a weekend in air-conditioned comfort with time to spare for camping, hiking, mountain biking, or rafting. If we return to the office from these excursions Monday morning with a couple of visible scratches we feel we’ve proved our courage to our often envious co-workers.

The obstacles we must overcome no longer exist out there. Now it’s our own internal demons that we must conquer. The threats these pose are more subtle than mountain ranges or vast advances of desert. They play upon our capacity for self-deception and our skill as architects of elaborate rationalizations. Toying with our emotions they cause us to fear the other while assuring us that our own faults are actually strengths in disguise.

The unknown remains, as it always will. But on our home planet, the undiscovered places tend to be nooks and crannies rather than lost cities or unexplored canyons. To the extent, we pursue it the thrill of discovery is now much more personal than it is public. Those looking for fulfillment climb the peak because they have never climbed it before, knowing full well that hundreds if not thousands ascended it before them. It is their own curiosity more than humanity’s that they’re attempting to satisfy.

But for most of us, the experiences we settle for typically perform a much baser function. Instead of seeking meaning and sharing what we learn from the search, we record experiences as a means of keeping score. Selfies taken here and there serve to advertise things we got to do that others we know perhaps didn’t. Our smartphones provide both the soundtrack and the camera for a movie about ourselves we hope will get more clicks than whatever the proverbial Joneses may have posted. Many of us no longer even bother to edit the content we share, speaking whatever pops into our head or photographing ourselves whenever the mood strikes. Even our “leaders” are now increasingly getting in on the act. What we write isn’t as important as how often we write and how many people we get to follow us while we do it.

In a race that’s won by the person or group receiving the most attention, easy and shallow pastimes are a far more efficient means of generating material than activities requiring effort, planning, research and other forms of deep engagement. Unfortunately, attention will always be a poor substitute for meaningful relationships and banality will never be as fulfilling as pursuits that expand our horizons.

Frederick Jackson Turner concluded that the frontier had rendered “Movement” the “dominant fact” of American history during the country’s first century of nationhood. He argued that “the American energy will continually demand a wider field for its exercise…in spite of environment, and in spite of custom, each frontier did indeed furnish a new field of opportunity, a gate of escape from bondage of the past; and freshness, and confidence, and scorn of older society, impatience of its restraints and its ideas, and indifference to its lessons, have accompanied the frontier.”

Today there is no longer an opportunity to escape to fresh unsettled territory, but there are still frontiers galore for each of us to explore. In the absence of blank places on the map enticing us onward, we are faced with empty spaces within ourselves. It is our fear and ignorance that we must strive to overcome to find our “new field of opportunity.” For each of us, this frontier will offer somewhat different challenges and take unique shapes. But if we can transcend the easy narcissistic fixes that consumerism and social media invite us to indulge, who knows what we might be able to discover that’s truly worthy of sharing along the way.

Photo by Filip Mroz on Unsplash

Follow Craig on Twitter or read him at Medium.com

Other recent stories by Craig include: Epigenetics: Where Biology And Culture Meet & Are You Getting Enough Awe In Your Experiential Diet?