I read last week a fascinating New York Times article titled "Secret Ingredient for Success." The authors interviewed highly successful people about what made them successful and discovered one common element. The discovery was surprising--somewhat even counter-intuitive. Beyond their natural talent and skill, their personalities, their strengths, their passion and vision, how hard they worked, their success came from this quality: intentional, regular, rigorous self reflection. Self assessment. Self evaluation. It's called double loop learning.
"In this mode we question every aspect of our approach, including our methodology, biases and deeply held assumptions. This more psychologically nuanced self-examination requires that we honestly challenge our beliefs and summon the courage to act on that information, which may lead to fresh ways of thinking about our lives and our goals." (Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield)
It got me thinking about the way so many people go through life. We just kind of float along, going with the flow, never really reflecting or thinking about life, trying to avoid obstacles as much as possible, taking the easy path as often as we can, the path of least resistance.
And even with our spirituality. We tend to rarely think about it. We just do whatever it is we've always done, never really evaluating or reflecting about it, whether or not we're learning anything new, or whether or not it's actually changing us into better people. We just slide by spiritually.
The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates once said, "The unexamined life is not worth living."
I was especially reminded of the power of this value of self reflection last weekend. I conducted the first of three weekend retreats called "Ignite the Fire of Your Spiritual Life." Our small group spend a total of 10 hours doing rigorous self-assessment and evaluation. The purpose of this process was to give each person an opportunity to take stock of their spiritual life to determine what is working effectively and meaningfully and what isn't.
And we engaged within community--not just doing personal reflection but also sharing some of our reflections with each other. The process of hearing and listening and being heard and listened to is extremely powerful. When people are willing to hold the space for us as we do our work in a way that's safe and affirming and accepting, we are empowered to grow and transform in beautiful ways.
One of the participants texted me the next day and said, "Thank you for a breakthrough life-changing retreat--my spiritual life is already better ... Can't wait to see what more there is to come and I know it will be very good."
That's the impact of healthy and effective self reflection. It comes from being willing to be intentional. To pay attention to your life, your spirituality. To do it honestly, authentically, transparently, participatively.
Most wisdom traditions agree on the process for enlightenment and spiritual wholeness. Confucianism describes it as becoming fully awake, waking up to life, seeing life clearly. According to the Li Chi, the classic Confucian guide to becoming spiritually developed,
"there must be a turning point in life when the maturing individual recognizes that simply being a human is not sufficient to becoming fully human."
Spiritual maturity is not an automatic occurrence. We can't slide into spirituality.
Jesus called that conscious turning point in one's life repentance. "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." It begins with awareness, waking up to our need. It continues with desire, seeing something better--something more--that we want. It involves an intentional turning around to chart a new path to receive that Life. "Wake up so you can experience the depths of God's kingdom that is right in front of you, indeed, right inside of you," said Jesus.
One of the poignant stories Jesus told was of the ten bridesmaids waiting through the midnight hours for the appearance of the groom. All of them had lamps. Five of them had enough oil for the lamps to keep burning through the night. So that when the groom finally showed up, they were awake to be swept up into the wedding party and join the festivities. The other five missed out. No light. Sleepy.
Light. Wakefulness. Clarity. Awareness.
Some of the markers Dr. David Benner, in his book Soulful Spirituality, describes as identifying a mature spirituality include
"being grounded in reality and alive to the present moment, a personal philosophy that makes life meaningful, the capacity for forgiveness and letting go, inner freedom of choice and response, the capacity for reflection on experience." (p. 35)
These qualities don't just suddenly show up in our lives. They're developed. We awaken to them through reflection, intention, attention. Like the five wise bridesmaids, we stock up on enough oil, we trim our lamps, light them, and use them to become fully awake to what's happening inside us and around us. We repent.
I'm planning two more spiritual retreat cycles this Winter/Spring; one in San Francisco again (April 5-6), and another in Walla Walla, Washington (March 22-23). Here's the link for the details: "Ignite the Fire of Your Spiritual Life." If you want a powerful opportunity to engage in awakening your spiritual life in new and transformational ways, I invite you to check out these events. It could be a turning point for you.
The two authors of the above New York Times article interviewed tennis great Martina Navratilova to find out the secret of her ultimate success:
"[She] told us that after a galling loss to Chris Evert in 1981, she questioned her assumption that she could get by on talent and instinct alone. She began a long exploration of every aspect of her game. She adopted a rigorous cross-training practice (common today but essentially unheard of at the time), revamped her diet and her mental and tactical game and ultimately transformed herself into the most successful women’s tennis player of her era. What we learned from conversation with high achievers is that challenging our assumptions, objectives, at times even our goals, may sometimes push us further than we thought possible."
I wonder why so many of us fail to engage in this kind of rigorous self reflection and self evaluation in such a vital area of life, our spirituality? Maybe it's because we simply don't know how to go about doing that. Maybe we're afraid of failing or not achieving anything different than what we already have. Maybe we just don't think about it--we're simply too busy or distracted by the rest of life. Or maybe it's just not that important or appealing to us.
But maybe it is time to shine the light. Time for the secret ingredient. Time to awaken. Fully alive instead of sleepwalking. The best way to success and joy!