The Power of Reflection

In a journal entry composed a few years ago on philosophy as a way of life, I observed:

What Thoreau, the Stoics, and the Vedics essentially advocate is to be present with complete attention by, where needed, interposing the judgment of your mind between desire and deed, between impulse and action.

Unfortunately, no one ever said this was easy – especially, as I went on to write, in the heat of the moment.

Yet inevitably that heat is followed by a cooler time which affords the opportunity for reflection. One of the wonders of the human person is that we are able to look back on our past actions and reactions with a critical attitude, places ourselves in another person’s shoes, imagine and plan a better future, and change our attitudes based on what we learn.

In two recent posts I’ve used the example of anger, so let’s stick with that. As with all emotions, this one comes in many forms: from mild annoyance to deep outrage, from a slow burn to an immediate reaction, etc. As my friend Eric asked, how can one best manage the flash of anger you might experience when some cuts you off on the highway?

Naturally there are situations in which it’s difficult to avoid that flash of anger – and at some level it’s not necessarily healthy to suppress any emotional reaction you might experience. Yet in a more reflective moment, whether minutes later or the same evening before you go to sleep or days later, you can think about the situation: Was it really that serious? Were you really being threatened? Does it make sense to expect everyone you interact with to behave well? Was there perhaps another explanation for what happened? Is it possible that the person was just having a bad day? Have you ever done something similar? And further: Did it feel good to get angry or did you feel somewhat sickened by the rush of anger through your body? Is that how you want to feel? Do you want to be an angry person? Can you imagine a healthier reaction, such as laughing it off or shaking your head in disbelief? Next time can you try to model a more positive behavior instead of immediately getting angry?

You can’t always (or even ever!) interpose all these thoughts between what you experience and feel “in the now” – but you do have the ability to reflect afterward, plan ahead for the next time something similar happens, visualize reacting in a different way, and slowly improve your emotional practices.

I’ll admit that I speak from experience, because when I was young I had a wicked temper, which it took me years to tame. It can be done, but it might not happen quickly!

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