on the art of reflecting

I must say I am a bit disappointed. I anticipated that my last post would have generated millions of comments, or at least a couple. I was anticipating posting your thoughts and insights into the process of reflection. Oh well, such is the plight of the blogger. They say fewer than 1 per cent of readers ever leave a comment. I guess “they” are correct. So, in case you missed it, I asked you to look at five photos of sunsets. They were basically of the same scene from my vacation, but taken under varying conditions. I had noticed when I looked at the scene as it evolved each evening, that the conditions were sometimes nearly perfect to enable reflection in the pond of the sky, trees and colors and sometimes were not. I believe looking at these photos can help us to see metaphorically the necessary components for optimal reflection.

Let’s look at photo 1, taken on day 6. How reflective is it?

[[{"fid":"2656","view_mode":"default","type":"media","attributes":{"height":680,"width":1024,"style":"width: 753px; height: 500px;","class":"media-element file-default"}}]]

Not very.


Because the surface of the water is not smooth. There was too much wind, causing little ripples in the surface of the pond. So, while you see the trees on the opposite bank quite well, there doesn’t seem to be any depth to the reflection. It is a blur, and you can only see areas of lightness and dark on the surface. Therefore, to optimally reflect, we have to become still, to allow the image to reflect deeply in our inner selves. Have you ever tried to reflect upon a distressing moment when you are still highly agitated or upset? You can’t get very deep. You can’t make out the details of your reflection. You need to quiet your acute emotional reaction in order to be able to truly reflect.

Now take a look at photo 2, from day 4

[[{"fid":"2661","view_mode":"default","type":"media","attributes":{"height":680,"width":1024,"style":"width: 753px; height: 500px;","class":"media-element file-default"}}]]

I really like this photo because of the depth of color in the sky.

Is it a perfect reflection?

I say NO.


There are a few things that interfere with perfection here. There are many colors of sunset in the sky: it ranges from golden yellows to deep pinks and purples. The reflection of the sky, however, shows only the pinks. Also, you know that the trees are reflected pretty well in the pond, but the photo is so dark, that you cannot really see where reality ends and the reflection begins. Additionally, the reflection of the top of the center tree that extends above the rest of the tree line is obscured by something in the foreground. This photo is too dark, too close, and was not given a long enough exposure to enable  the reflection to appropriately mirror reality. I could have stepped back a bit, used a longer exposure time, and I could have metered my light off the trees, not the exciting colors in the sky. So when we are too close to the event we are trying to reflect upon, when we fail to step back, fail to give it enough time, and fail to focus on the important components we may notice only what caused our excitement or agitation to begin with. Critical reflection requires a certain amount of distance in addition to the surface stillness that allows this reflection to be better than the last.   What about photos 3 and 4? Look at them again to see the defects yourselves

[[{"fid":"2666","view_mode":"default","type":"media","attributes":{"height":680,"width":1024,"style":"width: 753px; height: 500px;","class":"media-element file-default"}}]]
[[{"fid":"2671","view_mode":"default","type":"media","attributes":{"height":680,"width":1024,"style":"width: 753px; height: 500px;","class":"media-element file-default"}}]]

Which of course brings us to the one I consider the best example of reflection: Photo 5

[[{"fid":"2676","view_mode":"default","type":"media","attributes":{"height":680,"width":1024,"style":"width: 753px; height: 500px;","class":"media-element file-default"}}]]

I don’t thnk this is the most beautiful of the photos, but I do think it has most of the necessary components of optimal reflection: It was taken at a fairly wide angle, with an adequate exposure at a distance, on a calm day. While the colors are not overwhelming us, they are accurately reflected in the pond. The foreground does not hide any of the details of the trees that are being reflected in the water, and we can clearly see where reality ends and the reflection begins. For me, to engage in critical reflection, I need distance (space and/or time), an open mind (kind of like the open aperture that lets in enough light to see details in the photos), stillness of mind so that I can reflect without disturbing the surface, and I need the colors to be somewhat muted so that my feelings don't overwhelm my ability to learn and grow from the experience upon which I am reflecting.

Does this ring true for you? Do you think I am full of hot air?

Or can you see the relationship between the conditions in these photos and the conditions of your mind as you try to reflect? Please let me know what you think, and how you accomplish your best reflecting.

Recent Comments

Deep thought observations. Probably much too long for the average web surfer..attention span max is 10 seconds average time.
however objects often appear different depending on the lighting, smooth surfaces do not distort like waves, a lot like life. Great photographers catch these nuances and can profoundly alter the viewers experiences without the viewer even realizing how their thought and observation has been guided. Great stuff....

Thanks Gary. I do have faith that many of my readers can pay attention for more than ten seconds at a time. But who knows? I think I just didn't capture their minds the first time round. I appreciate you stopping by.

I do my best thinking when I'm able to remove myself from a situation and reflect on it. For example, right now I'm in the middle of branding the new business. I can work with my partners for hours on a logo, and seemingly get nowhere. But once I go home, cook, relax, and get a good night's rest, I wake up with a ton of ideas, all based on what we previously thought was an unproductive work session.

Thanks for stopping by John. We all need a little distance to do our best contemplation.

Hi Alice...what an interesting take on how we reflect internally vs observing reflections...it is, for me, clarity that I am seeking when I am reflecting and introspective. When my self reflection is blurred by distractions, inability to "focus" and distortions of truths, like the photographs, the result is not optimal. That said, there are times that I am drawn to the fuzzy reflections in photography as well as in life...when I am meditating with no agenda, sometimes fuzzy is welcome.
Thanks Alice....always wonderful to stop by your place!

Thanks, Claudia. This is my latest interest within the field of medical education.

Thanks, Gelene
You are so right. We don't think enough about thinking. And how is it that so many health care providers allow themselves to go through their professional lives without reflecting upon what they do? Helping them to reflect upon their actions is so critical for those of us that have gained some perspective in our lives. I am so happy that you stopped by and left a comment!

Alice, I'm interested in the fact that the content of your blog and responses conspicuously avoid the mention of feelings or movements of the spirit, equally important to experience and integration via reflection.

I am so glad that you mentioned emotions. I am not at all sure why I didn't touch on the emotional or spiritual nature of our experiences. But I certainly agree with you about how important they are, and how critical to learning about ourselves as people and professionals. Thanks so much for stopping by.

Reflection is critical for learning. Well known educational theorists, such as Dewey, Kolb, and Habermas, all discuss the importance of reflection for learning, making memories, and changing what we think and how we act. One of the reasons humans don’t learn, or learn just enough to overcome the most immediate obstacle, is that we don’t think deeply on a subject. We need to ponder and discover for ourselves how all the pieces fit together. We need to reflect in order to learn.

Thanks, Susan. I appreciate hearing that you support and encourage reflection as true and authentic learning.

How do we ever learn about ourselves without reflection? I am so happy that you have opened this topic. We are all way too busy, it seems, to stand back and ponder what we have become; how we arrived where we are; or what our best path ahead should now be. Thanks for making me stop to think about thinking. We certainly don't do enough of it.

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About Dr. Ackerman

Alice Ackerman, MD, MBA, FAAP, FCCM is the Chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Carilion Clinic and Professor and Founding Chair of Pediatrics at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. Dr. Ackerman is recognized nationally as an expert in pediatric critical care.

She has been at Carilion Clinic since June of 2007. Her primary goals are to enhance the health care of children in the Roanoke Valley and Southwest Virginia, and is actively working to do this both as physician in chief of the children's hospital, as well as through involvement with many state-wide initiatives.

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