Skip Johnson excels at everything he does. A star athlete and extremely successful businessman, his intense type A personality certainly contribute to his success, but it also causes him mental and physical stress that impacts his sleep, the quality of his most intimate relationships, and his ability to feel happy and peaceful on a deeper level.
He came to Namaste over a decade ago to figure out how to create pockets in his life to slow down, improve his sleep, and explore living with greater balance. An extremely bright and well-read person, he came to the table with a good deal of self-awareness about the patterns he wanted to change and was open to anything we suggested. He was what we call a “Zen CEO” in the making.
We started with slow, mindful yoga and breathwork, which was a key balancing ingredient. With a Namaste teacher he respected deeply, he learned to meditate and use the space in sessions for existential conversation and contemplation. The time Skip dedicated to yoga and meditation created reflective space that supported his sleep, his relationships, and his happiness and performance for the rest of his week.
Fourteen years of practicing has enabled him to ride the wave of stressful stages in life and career with greater awareness and equilibrium. As an ultra-high performer, making space for non-doing was not familiar or necessarily natural to Skip. That practice—the not doing—had to be intentional, as it does for so many people today. Let’s take a closer look.
The Spaciousness of Not Doing
On a macro level, reflection is about slowing down and making space for feeling, noticing, and thinking. On a micro level, reflection shows up in practices like journaling, drawing or doodling, taking a walk with a friend, or stepping onto our yoga mat. For me, reflection often looks like taking five minutes away from my phone and computer and lying on the chaise lounge outside on a warm day to breathe, listen, and reflect.
Or when I approach a full inbox, the reflection looks like pausing between responding to one email and the next. We spend so much time absorbing information from emails, texts, meetings, and videos without leaving space in between to process all the communications. Responding is a necessary part of our lives, but when I slow down and take a breath between each email to process, it changes the experience for myself as well as the quality of my interactions.
After each email, I either let it go or file it in my mind or heart and then read and consider what a thoughtful response to the next email would be. The practiced pause makes the process of getting through my inbox less stressful, even enjoyable and mindful. The highest performers I know and have worked with value learning and continued growth in theory, although practice can be a challenge.
They found that the impact of reflection on learning is mediated by a perceived increased ability to achieve a goal, otherwise known as self-efficacy. They mention an important quote from the psychologist, philosopher, and educational reformer John Dewey: “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.”11 A moment of reflection can be as simple as a deep breath.
It’s a close cousin to mindfulness, and the lines between reflection, rest, and meditation are blurred— more of a soft, seeping charcoal line than a fine line. Reflection can also be as intense as working with a therapist and creating a compartmentalized space in our week to process feelings, thoughts, and worries in the context of a trusting relationship.
Taking Time to Think
Reflective time is thinking time, which leads to creative or innovative ideas and inspiration. Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, explains in his book that removing distractions and working deeply, as well as embracing boredom by removing habitual, impulsive, and addictive tendencies like social media, is key to optimizing ourselves.
Reflection is part of deep work, and it happens when we make space for our wisdom, insights, and ideas to surface and be heard by us. Reflection is different than meditation, and as a component of deep work, it can be blocked for extended periods—several hours to whole days. Reflection can also happen more organically and have a softness about it—for example, my breath practice in between emails.
Meditation comes with technique, whereas reflection is more open-ended, albeit intentional. Reflection can be looking out the window at the trees on a drive, having a quiet cup of tea at the end of a day, or calling on memories that cultivate a feeling of warmth and joy. Reflection can even feel like an indulgence, where we daydream or let our thoughts wander. We talk so much about being in the present moment, and the word reflection can sound like thinking about the past or looking behind us.
Reflection time can be filled with looking back, reminiscing, or visualizing plans for the future, but it is not meant to manifest ruminating or obsessive thoughts. Thinking back or ahead is important for learning from prior experiences and manifesting goals and intentions, but at the end of the day, we can only be here, now.
Reflection and the Body
Francesca Horn was in her mid-forties when we met. She was a professional artist who sold her paintings for a small fortune, and she was on the board of a major New York City museum as well. Her husband, a renowned architect, had lost a long, difficult battle with cancer, and she was grieving. Her two children were preadolescents, and they were struggling deeply after watching their father die and experiencing the gaping hole that was left in his absence.
Francesca had a huge amount of responsibility, and on top of sorting through her feelings, she had to sort out how to manage her life as a single mom and widow. She’d never practiced yoga or meditated in the formal sense of the word. Her art had always been her practice, but she now had no desire to paint. Her grief left her physically rigid and feeling far from the state of flow she experienced while she was being creative.
Her body felt tight and cold from the inside out, and the world felt cruel and dark. As a single mom, she could not crawl under the covers and hide, although that was what she wanted to do. From the wisest place in herself, she knew that her only choice was to find a soft, warm, and nurturing space to grieve, breathe, and think about her changed life. We started doing a full yoga practice with her three times a week—gentle asana, pranayama (breathwork), and meditation.
Francesca found the most comfort in pranayama, and we created small practices that she could use throughout the day that allowed her to slow down and center her mind and heart. She practiced pranayama before waking her children for school, before picking them up, and then again before her bedtime. Francesca needed to make space for her grief. Giving her pain room to breathe, to express itself, and eventually to release was the key to her healing process.
Pranaya ma allowed her to connect with and breathe out the pain, tension, grief, and emotions she was holding in her body, from her organs and muscles to deep in her bones. As she released the emotions, she was able to live with greater ease in her body and her life overall. Francesca’s anger at the world for the fact that she lost her husband, her frustration at having to raise her children alone, and her longing for intimacy with her soulmate were all living in the cells of her body.
Reflection within the vehicle of slow, mindful movement created the dynamic therapeutic energy needed to permeate her grief-ridden rigidity and mobilize healing. Reflection helps us release rigidity because when we can think and feel, we have the opportunity to release blockages, enabling the movement to happen.
So often, we operate on autopilot, and moments of reflection help us make thoughtful choices and evolve in our lives. In my twenties and early thirties, I journaled all the time. Journaling created that space and time for me to think and feel, and it played a big part in my personal psychospiritual development. I learned to understand my mind and challenges.
Reflection through journaling was introspective and ultimately self-affirming in a way that enabled me to integrate the teachings from many life experiences because I made space for that integration through my writing practices. In that time in my life, I was consuming an enormous array of teachings from the Eastern traditions. I was studying wellness and spiritual practices and making connections with how they interface with medicine and psychology.
At the time, the elective practice of journaling was equally as powerful as all the other work that I was doing in terms of study, practice, and meditation. I could not have internalized, integrated, and made the connections that were needed for my journey ahead without the reflective practice of journaling during those formative years. This was the seed of my knowledge base that I have been further cultivating through years of practice and working with others.
Different styles of reflection work best at different stages of our lives. I stopped journaling when my children were babies because, with little space and time for self-care, I fell out of the habit. In hindsight, I believe that maintaining the practice would have served me as a new mother in the same way that I processed the wisdom teachings of the East, but this time it would have been about the wisdom experiences of motherhood and the obstacles on that road.
Today, my kids are older, and I have brought journaling back into my daily routine. It’s a five to ten-minute block before bed, which has reconnected me with the power of this tool. It feels as though I am making space for my thoughts and feelings at a stage when much of my time is focused on the well-being, thoughts, and feelings of others, both personally and professionally.
The fluid feeling of writing with pen and paper also feels great after typing or banging away on my phone all day. On top of that, the digital age has catapulted us into a stressful, constantly reactive state, and spacious reflection is a remedy that can counterweight the liabilities of this day and age. Reflection has an entirely different quality than multitasking, which research shows is ineffective anyway.
The landscape is fast and crowded in our minds. Whether it’s to save lives, increase productivity, or find greater well-being, practices that support our focus and attention are vital. Fifty years ago, people who studied meditation and breathwork were on a spiritual path.
Those practices have become a required tool kit, a prescription to address the stress of the twenty-first century and help us avoid catastrophe, however, we define it. In the next post, we look at the benefits of meditation and the many forms it takes.