Observing really what is

Kamala Mukunda

As a teacher, I value the kind of reflection that perhaps any human being would benefit from. It has to do with how we understand our own actions and attitudes. It’s quite easy to evaluate other people and systems; we can all come up with excellent analyses of the flaws in another teacher, or a student, or another school, or the government education department! But turning the whole thing inward, on oneself, is a very different cup of tea. What does it feel like to encounter one’s own ‘flaws’?

My instinctive answer to that question usually runs along these lines: Of course I know I’m not perfect. I know my own strengths and weaknesses. I’m really bad at this, and I’m not so good at that. But on closer reflection, these admissions sound a bit insincere. To tell the truth, I see myself only dimly, behind a haze of justifications and excuses. I’m rarely that accommodating of the faults of other people!

Especially as we gain experience in the teaching profession, we tend to become more and more sure of ourselves. The hesitation and tentativeness of youth gradually (sometimes rapidly!) recede, replaced by a sense of being assured and knowledgeable. Of course this is a move for the better; we do need to be confident, act decisively and not be paralyzed by self-doubt. But the other side of this coin is a deep reluctance to re-look, to re-examine the assumptions behind what we do, to backtrack, to acknowledge a mistake.

I read somewhere that CEOs and heads of organizations find it all the more difficult to reflect on their actions, because being in that position means they have a lot more to lose by admitting that they have made a mistake. And because of this, and the power they wield, the potential damage to the organization is very high if a mistake is made. This is quite similar to the role of a teacher, as CEO of his or her particular group of students! The teacher has significant authority and power in that situation. So, it is critical that she give time to reflect upon what she is doing and why.

What are some of the things a teacher could reflect upon? The list is long, ranging from a quick interaction with a student or colleague that didn’t go so well, to long-term habits of relationship. I could ask myself questions like this: Do I make the other person uncomfortable? Did I allow the other person to express his point of view? Was I unnecessarily impatient, so that now the other person will hesitate to approach me? Am I sometimes appreciative or constantly critical of others?

At a deeper level than these are the assumptions we carry around about everything in our profession: from how children learn, to how best to teach them. These are the hardest to reflect upon, because they are so much a part of us. Our ways of thinking are like the basic processes of breathing or digesting food – we’re never aware of them, unless something goes wrong. So we are all chock-full of unexamined beliefs. We act on the basis of these, and feel righteous and defensive about our actions because they follow logically from our assumptions.

I have learned that the only way not to be completely deluded about myself is to think about the reasons why I do certain things, or why I feel as I do about important issues. I personally prefer to take these long, hard looks at myself when I am on my own, but I know that some of my colleagues like talking things over with a friend, one who is honest yet caring. Whatever be the mode, I’ve rarely been able to reflect on things as they are happening, in the hurry-burry of a working day. For some of us, perhaps there needs to be some quiet time, some space in the day or the week set aside for this.

Many of the things I have outlined seem to fit neatly into a category that could be called ‘self-help’, or ‘self-improvement’. Recently, programmes and techniques to analyze and improve oneself through a fixed belief system (not religious) have been on the increase, at least in large cities. Their training methods use a similar vocabulary and touch upon similar themes as the reflection that I am thinking about. Yet in my mind, reflecting on one’s actions and inner movements, and analyzing them within a particular framework of assumptions and methods, are two totally different things.

I often find myself in the analysis trap. The analytical approach encourages me to find autobiographical explanations of myself (‘Because such-and-such happened to me when I was young, I am like this’), or to figure out my ‘personality’, whatever that means. Sometimes analysis can become academic, or almost obsessive; then I remember Mark Twain’s words: “The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the life too closely examined may not be lived at all.” It’s a good reminder to me of what this reflection is not. Perhaps reflection is what happens when I am not trying to improve or defend or explain myself. It may have a different quality, as I sense from this passage by the philosopher and educationist J Krishnamurti:

“And so it is important to understand oneself, is it not? Self-knowledge is the beginning of wisdom. Self-knowledge is not according to some psychologist, book, or philosopher but it is to know oneself as one is from moment to moment. Do you understand? To know oneself is to observe what one thinks, how one feels, not just superficially, but to be deeply aware of what is without condemnation, without judgment, without evaluation or comparison. Try it and you will see how extraordinarily difficult it is for the mind that has been trained for centuries to compare, to condemn, to judge, to evaluate, to stop that whole process and simply observe what is…” – J Krishnamurti, As One Is, KFI 2010.

The author is a full time teacher at Centre for Learning, Bengaluru and has written a book for parents and teachers called, ‘What Did You Ask at School Today?’ She is also interested in teacher education. She can be reached at kamala.mukunda@gmail.com.

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