Whatever it is that stops us in our tracks matters less than what we are being asked to notice. Whether it be malady, loss, impasse, disturbance or discontent, our emotional system is the indicator that data exists for us to decipher. To be able to examine the data we need to move into the role of observer. This capacity illustrates that it is possible to be both the experiencer and the observer of our own life.
To be one without the other may create a singularity of self absorption or cold detachment. However, when held together a balance point occurs: To experience – I am part of, and, To observe – I am separate from. This balance point enables movement between the two states, thereby acting as an enabler of conscious choice.
Conscious choice is alchemised in the crucible of purposeful attention. It arises from the process of separation. Through an observant eye, experience is observed thereby allowing the experiencer to separate from the experience and become the observer. Once observed the experience itself can be: held, considered, turned through perspectives, evaluated, tested for meaning, relevance and usefulness. Hence the pattern of the experience is revealed.
We think and behave in patterns. The human brain is a pattern making instrument. Neurologically everything that exists in memory is a pattern. That which is learned becomes a pattern. In some cases our patterns have run so long and so deep that we have become blind to them. The thing that stops us in our tracks, sometimes felt as an emotional ‘derailment’, or ‘ailment’ can act as the inciting incident that eventually causes us to discover the unseen pattern.
The benefit of such an experience is that it can catalyse an exploration of self enquiry that leads to the discovery of patterns of thinking or behaving that have hitherto gone unobserved. This is referred to as a ‘blind spot’. Our emotional system acts as an indicator of blind spots, particularly when we repeatedly experience emotions that we do not enjoy. These emotions accompany the story: ‘I am unhappy’, or ‘I am unwell’, or even ‘I am a failure’.
The benefit that derailment offers us, cannot be explored while we remain locked into the pain of: defeated expectations, beliefs, rules, or judgements that no longer serve us. The first movement that will offer respite and facilitate the ability to observe ourselves is to practice acceptance of what is happening. If we remain in non-acceptance of what we are experiencing we remain stuck within our patterns. Unable to separate from them, we experience emotions of non-acceptance such as: resentment, resignation and depression. Achieving acceptance ultimately brings relief and a deeper state of peace.
To ask ‘Why is the pattern happening?’ is not as useful as ‘What is the pattern I need to see?’. When we ask ‘why’ we are seeking to find the answer from within the pattern and the answer remains elusive. The ‘what’ question invites us to sit outside the pattern. To watch, reflect and learn. To watch and separate from the pattern allows new data to emerge. With new data and new perspectives we move to insight. These ‘aha’ moments set us free. We see with clarity the pattern that our habitual, experiential selves had not allowed us to witness.
Once seen and evaluated the old pattern can fall away and a new pattern can emerge; one that is more consciously and deliberately developed. To find the element of conscious choice we sit at the balance point between being the experiencer and the observer. It is possible to move between them and embrace both simultaneously. By practicing acceptance of what is happening we are ready to evaluate what is useful and what is not. Whatever it is that stops us in our tracks matters less than what we are being asked to notice.
Martin Challis © 2011
Blue to you may be one without two,
and all of the times you’ve landed,
feet thick with dew – stuck to each hue
where you thought for a time you were stranded.
Blue to you may be a day that is new, to
me it’s the place where I’m standing.
It’s the home of the eye and the reach of the tree.
It’s the wave of the wind and the wave that is we.
Blue is the deep and the shallow the same,
it’s just where I’ll be when you’re calling my name.
Searching and spreading. Dividing our wings.
Soaring the gentle, the sharing of things.
Come endless, come empty, full with your sound
call the vast harmony and arms that surround.
Come to the blue that touches all things
come with me gentle, come let us sing,
sing the high rising, sing the low mark
sing the blue heaven that covers the dark,
and chorus the carol, the carol of being,
and the blue that is given to those that are seeing.
Tucked under and lifting a symphony of cloud
The sun beams in lay-lines from its horizon.
Yet, the scientist who explains this phenomenon
Cannot describe my feelings for such a spectacle
Cannot describe the song in me that dances
The miracle of light and spectrum.
You are mighty, you are ethereal
Your many fingers rake aberrant their spatulas of light
Your beauty makes all else ghastly or at least ordinary.
The trifles of each day’s turnings are insignificant in comparison.
A conscience of orb, mist, shadow, light
The Gods derive pleasure from your presence
Else their thunderous growls bemoan your magnificence.
There is no darkness just the absence of light
There is no cold just the absence of heat
There is no disbelief just the absence of your benediction.
Uncapturable, delicate, infamous portent.
In the implausible silence you are where I worship
Without beginning or ending – Yours is an ultimate mantra.
martin challis © 2011
The lamps are different,
But the Light is the same.
So many garish lamps in the dying brain’s lamp-show,
Forget about them.
Concentrate on the essence, concentrate on the Light.
In lucid bliss, calmly smoking off its own holy fire,
The Light streams towards you from all things,
All people, all possible permutations of good, evil, thought, passion.
The lamps are different,
but the Light is the same.
One matter, one energy, one Light, one Light-mind,
Endlessly emanating all things.
One turning and burning diamond,
One, one, one.
Ground yourself, strip yourself down,
To blind loving silence.
Stay there, until you see
You are gazing at the Light
With its own ageless eyes.
A Discussion On Critical Reflective Practice
Malcolm Gladwell in his acclaimed book “Blink”  discusses the phenomenon of ‘thin slicing’; an intuitive process of knowing involved in decision making. ‘Thin slicing’ is described as an individual’s capacity to take in large amounts of information from various sources, when making fundamental and critical decisions. This all happens in a matter of milliseconds. He cites a story relayed to him by a researcher Gary Klein, concerning a fireman who saved many lives by making a split decision that he put down to ESP. Klein could not agree with the fireman’s explanation and asked many probing questions to gain deeper insight.
The story goes that on this particular day the team of firefighters attended a house fire located seemingly in the kitchen. On entering the house and locating the fire in the kitchen the fireman proceeded to use the water hose to extinguish the flame: noting happened. They tried again and the same thing occurred. This was unusual, as a kitchen fire should normally abate using this method. In a split second the fireman in question called his team out of the house and within seconds the floor collapsed. The source of the fire had been in the basement not in the kitchen as assumed. The remarkable event of saving his colleague’s lives was attributed to ESP. After extensive questioning, Klein discovered the fireman had ‘thin sliced’ more than he was aware of at the time. He had noticed the fire was unusually quiet; the floor was hotter than it should have been and had not responded to water in the usual manner. Without being aware of this at the time he had made an intuitive decision based on the tacit knowledge he had gained from years of experience. Until he had undergone a process of reflective and critical questioning he was not aware of his ‘theories in use’ .
This fireman was not a reflective practitioner and had not enjoyed the benefit of deepening his practice through self-motivated reflective practice. His espoused theory is that he used ESP. His Theory in use turns out to be something quite different. The question also arises: does his ability to practice his craft improve or deepen by becoming more cognisant of his ‘theories in use’? I cannot answer this question for him but it does motivate me to ask the question for myself.
Following the Rabbit
I have grown increasingly aware of the creative potentials that exist for me by paying closer attention to my practice. Attention guided through the use of structured and critical reflection and attention to the emerging ideas of practice. Using this process it has been possible to deepen understanding, gain insight and follow the creative rabbit down the burrow-hole of practitioner led inquiry to investigate and explore the potential of ideas and insights emerging from practice.
On this journey I have learned to appreciate the value of reflection as a means of exposing “theory’s in use” as opposed to “theories espoused” . By exposing I mean that as inherent and tacit knowledge surfaces from time to time, relative to the nature and context of practice through structured and critical reflection, it is possible to discover the theory that is currently in use and by doing so: deepen practice, deepen theory and also further evolve as a practitioner. As McCarthy and Hatcher  so eloquently state, “…good practice is supported by reflection, and reflection, of course, becomes theory.” The “Of course” part is so easily stated and yet not so easily appreciated.
For me there was a point in time where I did begin to appreciate that a truly reflective practitioner using tools and approaches of structured and critical reflection has the capacity to deepen understanding and catch ideas that hitherto might have gone un-noticed.
The essential difference between the fireman and myself would seem to be that; I have a desire to deepen and evolve my practice and develop through a structured process as a practitioner. The fireman is satisfied with his accomplishments whether he puts them down to ESP or not. On the other hand I am not satisfied without the rigour and challenge of asking the questions of self and practice that may hopefully lead to deeper satisfactions of refinement, discovery and creativity. To achieve this I have chosen the path of practice led inquiry using reflective practice as the fundamental research methodology.
The vocabularies of practice that have emerged are informed by, and intrinsically linked to each project undertaken. Projects such as: Raw Theatre , Scenestation  and Three Chairs . As I consider these vocabularies I sense they are informed by the qualities, aspirations and epistemological standpoint of the Reflective Practitioner and the processes and practices of Critical Reflective Practice (CRP).
The qualities that have become evident to me add to the qualities of the reflective practitioner that Schon  for example, refers to as the 10c’s of Reflective Practice including such qualities as Care, Commitment and Compassion. Through my vocabularies of practice I deem an essential quality and perhaps primary quality to be the preparedness for Unknowingness.
That is: to be prepared to not know in order to know; in itself part of a deeper knowing.
To discover a ‘theory in use’ and ’emergent knowledge’ the practitioner must posses a commitment for true exploration. To achieve this, the mind must let go of having to ‘know’ what comes next. To know or pre-determine what comes next will not lead to a discovery, rather, it points to a known destination.
To contemplate the nature of the unknown leads me to contemplate the nature of the infinite, which naturally challenges my rational mind. Do I need to do this consciously and constantly in order to move beyond limitations of habit, end-gaining and cyclical thinking?
My mind tends to feel secure by identifying through the constructs of: definition, boundary, rules, guidelines, expectations, beliefs and systems. It is a huge challenge to work with the concept of ‘not knowing’ or ‘not holding’ on to pre-determined ideas. I feel the strong desire to want to get it right, to know the correct way, to identify the result and arrive at the ‘product’.
Kim Nataraja commenting on the book , The Cloud of Unknowing, speaks of the limitlessness of the universal God and the impossible task of the human mind to encapsulate an understanding of God in any rational or logical sense. The only way of touching the limitlessness of God is to experience contemplation without ego. For this experience to occur she says, the contemplator must first switch off the left part of the brain and move to the right. Carl Jung, according to Nataraja, also speaks of moving from the rational knowledge of the mind to the intuitive knowledge of the heart in order to know God more deeply.
This is the only way that the intuitive knowledge of the heart will reveal itself. The only way to ‘know’ God is to unknow. First to move into the cloud of forgetting before moving to the cloud of unknowing. All personal thoughts are Ego thoughts and the contemplator must leave self behind in order to experience this stage. She says: “humans are so caught up in their thoughts they cannot see beyond to the reality of God. Our brains are much too limited to know God.”
Nataraja explains that for the contemplator to achieve a deep state of knowing; the process first involves moving the attention from the left-brain to the right brain. The left-brain is concerned with thoughts and images derived from a state of ego as the self. When the contemplator brings their focus to the right brain, attention on a deeper state of being and flow  is achieved. Attention on love for example, allows the contemplator to move ever deeper into the unknown in order to experience a deep state of intuitive knowing.
While this process may be dismissed as esoteric it may also be viewed as supporting the notion of suspension  as the first step towards redefinition and the process of new awareness. In Scharma’s U Theory the practitioner must enter a state of suspension or unknowingness in order to begin the process toward new knowledge or new knowing. In order to gain deeper insight into self and practice the practitioner must be prepared to examine the patterns and the ‘sets’ of mind.
Attention to practice – using the tools of the reflective practitioner  – capturing emergent knowledge: fundamentally supports the initial leap into ‘unknowingness’. From this however emerges a possible conundrum for Reflective Practice. In reminding us of the human mind’s capacity to recall images and memories from the right side of the brain, Malcolm Gladwell  cites the work of Jonathan W. Schooler – Schooler’s work demonstrates that by being asked to explain or describe particular insights, the subject’s insight is itself impaired. This is referred to as ‘overshadowing’.
This phenomenon of ‘overshadowing’ is explained by Schooler to occur in such experiments where a subject is asked to first recall the face of someone they have met briefly beforehand, standing in a line-up: the success rate is relatively high. However after being asked to describe the features of another person they have briefly met; the success rate of identifying the subject in the line up is markedly lower. As we think in words with the left-brain and images in the right, by using the left-brain the subject of the experiment has diminished the ability to recall images. Schooler says: “It’s the same kind of paralysis though analysis you find in sports contexts. When you start becoming reflective about the process, it undermines your ability. You lose the flow. There are certain kinds of fluid, intuitive, nonverbal kinds of experience that are vulnerable to the process.”
Interestingly when a subject is asked to explain how they performed a logical rational process using the left-brain, their capacity to perform the task is either undiminished or in some cases improved. Schooler says that insight is not a light that snaps on in the mind; it is more like a candle easily snuffed out.
So how do I treasure and nurture this candle so easily extinguished? I accept that it is possible that reflection may lead to a nullifying of insight. I don’t accept that all reflection nullifies insight. And so I ask: is there a way to practice reflection where such loss of insight does not occur? The answer for me lies in the appreciation of the nature of reflective practice as a way of noticing and attending to the object of my inquiry. I approach it with due diligence but not with force. I am gentle in the art of attending to practice. I set up ways of noticing my noticing. Like Guy Claxton  who refers to the intuitive processes of knowing being distinct from forceful deliberate actions of the mind to solve problems, as it works in a logical and linear fashion; I understand the need to go gently.
Coupled with the sensitivity to the nature of reflective practice is an appreciation for the need to be systematic and structured. This is not a contradiction in terms if practiced attentively. For example: looking at the structure of the Raw Theatre Project , I note the clear steps taken to arrive at a stage of completion.
2. Gathering of thoughts, people, resources, initial discussions
3. Testing, recording, trialling.
4. Reflection, notation, annotation.
5. Re-application, testing, analysis.
6. Crisis, discussion, decision.
8. Further reflection and shaping
9. Final form
Within each step I am using the tools of Reflective practice such as: recording, annotating, journaling and interviewing. As I think of it now the surprises of discovery come when two principal conditions are met. The first might be described as an openness or readiness to receive emergent knowledge, described in terms of holding the space for ‘intuitive knowing’ to inhabit the site of inquiry; and secondly, through the application of structured and systematic forms of critical reflection.
Reading from notes prepared for an oral presentation earlier this year confirms the marriage of these two principals.
Reflection goes on and on in the cycle of trialling and testing. It is clear though there is the ‘in the room’ type of reflection and then there is the ‘out of the room’ kind. The out of the room reflection can be a constant (or what feels like a constant thing). I find that I have my attention on the project at hand for long periods of time. This might include watching videotapes of recorded sessions or writing up events but it can also be just sitting in a chair in deep thought, processing events standing in the shower etc. The reflection, notation, annotation stage repeats itself at various intervals and it is definitely my time with my ideas. This is the non-collaborative part. I don’t have to hurry or produce anything for anyone when I’m reflecting and attending.
As I move with unknowingness in order to know, I “let come and let go”  measuring each step with attentiveness, reflection and insight. I undertake an action learning cycle working most productively when: I am testing, experiencing, reflecting and hypothesising in and with the joy of learning and discovery. As Zull says; my learning is experiencing and my experiencing is my learning . With this in mind I begin to embrace and value the ingredients for Critical Reflective Practice. Including the essential ingredient of surprise.
The difference between surprise by accident and surprise in Critical Reflective Practice is that the former is an unanticipated event that just happens in a place and time, while the latter is an anticipated event (in the sense of being ready and open) happening in a place and time that is: watched and hoped for.
If I am walking along the street for example, content and consumed by my own thoughts, anticipating that I might soon be enjoying a cup of coffee at a local café and with the next step I am surprised to meet an old friend, this is unanticipated.
The second type of surprise, watched and hoped for, is the surprise that is relished in Critical Reflective Practice. Certain conditions, mechanisms and qualities of creative practice need to be established in order for it’s capture to be meaningful.
The conditions for Critical Reflective Practice likely to reveal meaning through surprise are those thatanticipate the potential for discovery. They do not demand it; rather, they create the optimum climate for discovery to occur. These conditions are supported by the attentiveness of the creative practitioner, as the level of attentiveness to practice is one of the key forms of measurement of Critical Reflective Practice.
The mechanisms that are applied throughout a creative process are both practical and personnel in nature. Practical in the sense that they work within a structure of one form or another and personal in the sense that there needs to be a ‘rightness of fit’ for the practitioner. The mechanisms are the tools and processes (see above as examples) of creative practice. They are applied to suit the nature of a creative project. They are ‘the how’ of Critical Reflective Practice and work with the structure.
A system of approach or structure provides the container in which to hold the liquid of creative emergence. The structure cannot be so rigid that it resists change. It must support a process of divergence and non-linearity. Conversely, it cannot be so flexible and non-directed that the liquid flow of the creative process runs in so many different directions that it is unable to sustain momentum or arrive at a point of collection.
Supporting the conditions of practice, which, the practitioner establishes, along with the mechanisms for practice, are the qualities the practitioner possesses. These qualities are perhaps generic and perhaps unique. For me they are qualities such as: passion, tenacity, enthusiasm, diligence, attentiveness, rigour and commitment.
From the emergent idea that fuels a creative impulse to the divergent process of alternate ideas, right the way through to: the convergence of energy that brings about a result or where a product comes to rest (if only just for a while): comes a level of engagement which involves: struggle, effort, sometimes crisis and rigour.
As a Critical Reflective Practitioner I have accepted this required level of engagement and appreciate the value and necessity of establishing my vocabularies of practice which manifest through the: conditions I set, the mechanisms I employ and the qualities I inject into my practice.
Therefore: my emerging theories, the conditions, the structure, the mechanisms (tools and processes), and the qualities that I possess and utilise are all inextricably linked and are expressed as my Vocabularies for and of Critical Reflective Practice.
The elements within these emerging vocabularies include: Fluidity, Intuition, Imagination, Patient attentiveness, the art of noticing and noticing the noticing. The forces of the Emergent, the Divergent and the Convergent. Surprise, Exploration and Discovery. Unknowingness. Reflection on and in action. Theory in use. Cycles of exploration, experience, discovery, testing, hypothesising, trialling, re-testing and recording.
The fireman story demonstrates that the performance of expertise and the understanding of expertise are not necessarily the same thing. The story of the witness being asked to explain her intuition demonstrates the dangers of analysis creating paralysis, which has implications that I as a Critical Reflective Practitioners must consider. Kim Nataraja speaking of the cloud of unknowing illustrates the possible connection to the limitlessness of knowledge through the complete suspension of assumption, ego and conditioned thought. The fireman and the witness viewing the line-up it would seem, are not critically reflective while the and the Christian teacher Nataraja, has clearly established a vocabulary for critical reflective practice.
Rather than reach a conclusion, in the spirit of Critical Reflective Practice being open-ended, it seems fitting to pose three questions arising from this paper that I need to consider further:
1. Are the conditions, mechanisms and qualities of and for the creative practitioner both common and unique?
2. Is there a right and left-brain conundrum inherent within reflective practice and if so, how is it overcome?
3. Is the balance between structured and systematic reflection and the gentle art of unknowing and intuitive thought precarious, and if so how can it be traversed?
I go quietly
To cherish the flame
And light if possible
One more corner
In one more room
Where before to me
- 1. Gladwell, M., Blink: the power of thinking without thinking. 1st ed. 2005, New York: Little, Brown and Co. viii, 277 p.
- 2. Schön, D.A., Reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action. 2nd
- New ed. 1995, Aldershot, England: Arena. 374.
- 3. McCarthy, P.H., Caroline, Speaking Persuasively, The Essential Guide to giving dynamic presentations and speeches. 1996: Allen & Unwin.
- 4. Challis, M. Towards the Poetics and Processes of Raw Theatre. 2005 [cited; Available from: http://www.rawtheatre.com.
- 5. Challis, M. Scenestation. 2006 [cited; Available from: http://www.scenestation.com.
- 6. Challis, M. Three Chairs. 2007
- 7. Schon, D.A., Beyond the stable state : public and private learning in a changing society. 1971, London: Maurice Temple Smith. 254.
- 8. National, A.R., The Spirit of Things, in Spiritual Classics – Love and War. 2007.
- 9. Csikszentmihalyi, M., Finding flow : the psychology of engagement with everyday life. 1st ed. MasterMinds. 1997, New York: BasicBooks. ix, 181.
- 10. Senge, P.M. and Society for Organizational Learning., Presence : exploring profound change in people, organizations, and society. 2005, London Boston: Nicholas Brealey. x, 289.
- 11. al, H.e., Reflective Practitioner Reader. 2005.
- 12. Claxton, G., Hare brain, tortoise mind : why intelligence increases when you think less. 1st Ecco ed. 1999, Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco Press. xi, 259 p.
- 13. Zull, J.E., The art of changing the brain : enriching teaching by exploring the biology of learning. 1st ed. 2002, Sterling, Va.: Stylus Pub. xvi, 263.
Inspired by Glen [Murcutt] and David’s [Malouf] insights drawn from two different fields of creative practice I reflected on the diverse number of ways creative processes capture the principles of what is universally true.
When road conditions are good, operating a car takes very little effort. And as such, time spent travelling alone can provide an opportunity for contemplation and solitude. It is also possible to invite others into this state of reverie by tuning the car radio to a program that fits the mood. This was the case recently on the run home after a daylong appointment on the other side of town. I tuned into a conversation between two prominent Australians: Architect Glen Murcutt, 2002 Pritzker Prize winner (the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for Architecture) and David Malouf, celebrated as one of Australia’s finest authors. The recording was part of the 3rd Annual Sydney Architecture Festival held this year.
As the speakers shared their views on topics such as how ‘good architecture can help define and lift the human spirit’, ‘how houses we grew up in shape our way of using space’, and other matters to do with the human condition and the creative process, I was taken by the wisdom of both men and the accessibility of their language. I was also drawn in by the observations and insights they shared when speaking of the creative process. While they operate in entirely different artistic practices it struck me how closely aligned they were.
The host of the conversation, Julianne Schultz, drew together elements of Glenn and David’s ways of working as architect and author. She made the observation that for Glen, he is constantly dealing with complexity and working with the desire to find a core essence in his work and for David he is doing something similar as he works to reach an emotional essence, a core body, within his writing.
I was fascinated by Glen’s response which in summary was that: Architecture needed to contain emotion such as serenity and ultimately joy and within it the elements of light and shade and that inevitably architecture [like any art form] must go beyond the rational. He went on to say that for him: simplicity is the other face of complexity, he used the analogy of the beautiful meal being reduced to a simple stock, and in that reduction is the essence of all the flavours, in other words, complexity is embodied in simplicity. For him, good architecture is not dissimilar.
One might ask, could this be another way of describing the mastery attained from hours and hours of work, be it writing, rehearsing or designing when less does eventually become more?
David added that the purpose of emotion for him is to take the reader back to the body, which is where the emotion comes from.
I was also taken by another part of the conversation when Glenn and David spoke about the way they dealt with obstacles that arose within the creative process. When a client, in Glenn’s case, created an obstacle that could potentially lead to a compromise of artistic integrity, he held the view that this actually created opportunity.
To illustrate this point he told the story of receiving a piece of advice from his father. Who had told him that you should always: “…start off the way you would like to finish. And for every compromise you knowingly make in the work, the result represents the quality of your next client.” Compromise (Glenn continued) is not about arrogance, it’s about doing something you absolutely ought not to be doing.
Glen’s attitude was to ‘allow the issue (not seen as a problem) to give you the opportunity to make it better. You satisfy the need the client is asking for and the opportunity has been made by the client to make it better. If you consistently do the level of work you want to do you are likely to attract that level of clients that you want.’
David added that in his writing, ‘When you hit an obstacle you are forced to find a way that is more imaginative.’
I see that here both Glen and David are talking not only about solutions that arise from creative tension. They are describing the process of integrative thinking that sees an opposing view or an obstacle to a process as an opportunity to become even more creative and imaginative. Their attitude to an obstacle is not one of egotistical defiance but rather an inquisitive and inclusive curiosity.
Both men also agreed that their best work comes when they move into a creative state of discovering the work they are making, almost seeing it as it unfolds. This state has been described by many including Mihály Csíkszentmihályi as a state of flow or ‘flow-state’. David described it as ‘the state you are in that takes you so completely’, where time passes and you unaware. Glen also suspected that, ‘we think that we make things with our conscious mind…[and that perhaps] everything that is best takes place when we working in the subconscious.’
Inspired by Glen and David’s insights drawn from two different fields of creative practice I reflected on the diverse number of ways creative processes capture the principles of what is universally true. Absorbed and intrigued by the discussion I found myself turning the corner at the end of our street. Safely traversing our city streets and absorbed in my travel companion’s conversation the contemplation had brought me all the way home.