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Refl-action: Reflection and action

Learning to live the paradox of action as reflection, and reflection as action*

“We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.” — Dalai Lama XIV

Supposedly carved into the temple of Apollo in Delphi was the phrase ‘Know Thyself”. I often wondered if in itself self-knowledge holds the risk of turning into self-obsession. And whereas the risk is there, knowing oneself – understood as cultivating self-awareness – holds immense possibilities of change: within, and outside in the world. No effective change is brought about without a degree of self-reflection and self-awareness.

Great leaders and social innovators from Nelson Mandela, to Aung San Suu Kyi, Thich Nhat Han, the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, all have held together the paradox of action and reflection, they all seem to have started their engagement in/with the world as an inside out process. This because we cannot just expect others to change: ‘wanting to change others means accepting a profound change in oneself. Self-reflection and self-revelation are necessary’ (Getting to Maybe. How the World is Changed).

To me there seems to be a link between psychological/personal awareness and social/political awareness. Jon Kabat-Zinn himself, the founder of the mindfulness-based stress reduction programme, emphasises how a reflective practice such as mindfulness has wide effects in the body-politic (see ‘Healing the body politic’ from the his book Coming to Our Senses). So it comes as no surprise that for social innovators ‘there is gold in a reflective practice’, and ‘it is essential to understand that there is a connection between self-knowledge and worldly knowledge’ (Getting to Maybe. How the World is Changed). Self-knowledge as self-awareness requires us to get out of the constant ‘doing mode’, to cultivate who we are. Which, in my opinion, is what makes all the difference when it comes to serving as an aid worker, a volunteer or an NGO manager.

Nevertheless what prompts many into aid work is activism, the desire to make a difference, ‘to do’ things that matter. It is somehow a quest for a meaningful life. Here reflection should not be understood as a state of passivity, but as moment of ‘being’, where we nurture those qualities that will inform our ‘doing’.


‘Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself’. — Leo Tolstoy

Reflection becomes important because the way we think about the world, and how we understand it frames our actions. So it is of no secondary importance to learn the art of standing still, seeing that the world is not simply acted upon, but rather it interacts with us, with who we are.  To paraphrase the work of my friend and colleague Jennifer Lentfer ‘it is not what we do, but HOW we do it’ that matters. Engaging in personal enquiry and reflection is therefore part of the action, it becomes an essential component of how we do things and who we are. Learning to standstill helps us to take stock and move forward effectively.  The story of the woodcutter from The Barefoot Guide to working with Organisations and Social Change (a wonderful, inspiring guide) conveys the message of why learning to pause is crucial:

“Once upon a time an old woman was walking through the forest near her home when she came across a man chopping down a tree. They exchanged brief greetings but he continued chopping. He was working very hard, determined to complete the job and see results before sundown. She watched him a while and then disappeared. A little later she returned, bearing a stone and a small bucket of water. When he paused in his work to wipe his brow she handed these to him and said, “Sir, I see that you are very busy. But, to put it bluntly, it looks to me like you need to pause a while, take a breath and sharpen your axe.” “Go away, woman, I am too busy I don’t have time for this!”

When do we sharpen our own axes? Do we take the time to standstill, take a breath, reflect? How many of us are just too busy for that?


The Barefoot Guide to working with Organisations and Social Change (free download)

Kabat-Zinn, Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness

*Westley et al. Getting to Maybe. How the World is Changed

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Mindfulnext by Alessandra Pigni is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.