Reflecting on Language

Language18750Reflecting on Language: My father had a passion for words that never dimmed. My clearest memory of him is seeing him sitting on the couch, reading, various dictionaries lined up on the couch beside him. Daddy had dictionaries for different purposes and liked to use them all. I inherited his love of words and am always curious about the etymology of words. I enjoy learning when words first appeared in English and how their definitions differ or change over time. 

Defining Reflection: Thinking about reflective writing over the past few weeks has naturally led to my thinking about the word reflect in all its forms: the adjective, reflective; the noun, reflection; and the verb itself to reflect. The various definitions alone provide food for thought. The noun reflection is defined as “the fixing of the mind on some subject; serious thought; contemplation,” or less ponderously, “turning one’s thoughts upon.” Somehow, that first definition with the “serious” and “fixing” business suggests a certain moral slant I can’t embrace. The simpler “turning one’s thoughts upon” is more in line with what I mean when I speak of reflective writing. Yet, these definitions leave out an underlying dynamic that intrigues me. 

Reflection as an Element of Consciousness: When we reflect, we are not just considering, we are considering a topic (focus, thought, whatever) in the larger arena of our entire consciousness (our memories, our intellect, our experience, even our personality, in fact, our entire being), and whatever new thoughts we produce, bring those influences back with them to our surface awareness, and, consequently, into our texts. So, I want to explore that underlying dynamic. 

reflection (640x425) (295x196)31250Reflection in Nature: Reflecting occurs in nature. If a light is bright enough, some portion of light reflects off of nearby (and not so nearby) surfaces. The moon reflects the sun’s light all the way to earth. On a smaller scale, light reflects off a window’s surface. The light reflected in the window’s surface may even be bright enough that it mirrors a tree outside the building. 

Reflection.DSCF0373 (295x221) (2)00000The Action of Reflection: We can look at the verb reflect, whose definition, “to give back an image of; to mirror; or to reproduce” captures this dynamic. Here, the visual mechanics of light reflecting are emphasized. We can think of images in a mirror or in the water as clear, visual examples of this definition of the verb. These definitions suggest a degree of nearly exact mimicry though reversed on another plane, a kind of dual representation of the light. 

Reflection in the Mind: A rarer definition of the verb reflect, “to fold or turn back,” echoes this notion of dual reflection. This manifold reflection concept is a closer parallel to what occurs in nature and what occurs when we reflect during the writing process. A definition that recognizes this connection is one I found for the adjectivereflective: “taking cognizance of the operations of the mind.” This definition takes us a step further in looking at the dynamics of what is happening when we write reflectively. We are looking at how our own mind operates—metacognition. 

Reflection as a Form of Metacognition: The term metacognition suggests a phrase I used earlier in writing about a Consciousness-BasedSM approach to understanding writing—Self-Referral.[1]Metacognition is defined simply as awareness of one’s thinking process: while Sself-Referral is defined as a folding or turning back on the Self (consciousness being aware of itself).[2] I like the parallel between these terms and how they both relate to reflective writing. Each concept suggests becoming more aware of who we are, how we think, and how we can expand our boundaries. 

Reflection in Our Writing: Writing can skate on the surface (often attractively); it also has the power to pull up the depths, bringing the reader that manifold impact, the attractive surface and the substantive depths. What makes reflective writing appealing to me is that it can produce not only a rich, layered text but also is a simple entrance into the writing process. All reflective writing requires is some time set aside to begin to write and freedom to see where the process takes us. 


Tree Reflected in Window.” Photograph courtesy of Bill Graeser []


Definition Sources: 

1. “Reflection.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved December 11, 2010. 
reflection, late 14c., in reference to surfaces, from L.L. reflexionem (nom. reflexio) “a reflection,” lit. “a bending back,” noun of action from pp. stem of L. reflectere, from re- “back” + flectere “to bend.” Meaning “remark made after turning back one’s thought on some subject” is from 1650s. 

2. reflect, divert, deflect XV; throw back (beams, etc.), turn one’s thoughts upon XVII; cast reproach. — OF. réflecter or L. reflectere, f. RE- + flectere bend. 
So reflection, reflexion throwing back of light or heat XIV; animadversion, imputation; fixing of the thoughts XVII. — (O)F. or late L. T. F. HOAD. “reflect.” The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. 1996. 11 Dec. 2010 <;. 

3. “Reflect.” [edit] Noun A water reflection 
1. the act of reflecting or the state of being reflected 
2. the property of a propagated wave being thrown back from a surface (such as a mirror) 
3. something, such as an image, that is reflected 
The dog barked at his own reflection in the mirror. 
1. careful thought or consideration 
After careful reflection, I have decided not to vote for that proposition.
1. an implied criticism 
It is a reflection on his character that he never wavered in his resolve. 
1. (computing) The process or mechanism of determining the capabilities of an object at run-time. Metacognition: 


[1]See the earlier posting on “Reflective Writing and the Experience of Transcending.” 
[2] The “self” here is the larger Self, pure consciousness, pure intelligence.

Self-Referral Point of View

blissful.girl.dreamstime_xs_3721139030000The Reader of Story: When we look at the reader as the experiencer of story, we must take into account all that a person is—thoughts, memories, feelings, being, and consciousness. Consciousness is the element that is fundamental to all these aspects of the self. Reading involves all these aspect because reading is a process that is both outward (eyes following the text, word recognition, etc.) and inward (a move to more subtle levels of thoughts, for example, our understanding of context, of literary constructs; memories of past experiences that may be relevant; emotions that may be tied up with those memories, etc. All of these are active ingredients of our consciousness.

Consciousness and Reading: So how do we understand consciousness in relationship to reading? Is it just the reader and the page? It is true that the writer can shift the reader’s experience of objects and events in a story by shifting the point of view from which the story is told? Ultimately, the reader not only fathoms the awareness of the narrator but also the awareness of all the characters and the explicit and implicit interactions among them. The reader does this by being conscious of his or her own awareness during the experience of the story. 

The Bubble Diagram

The Bubble Diagram

The Play of Consciousness: We can understand how consciousness comes into play when reading as we look at our experience during meditation. When a person practices the Transcendental Meditation technique, an individual systematically experience pure consciousness or Transcendental Consciousness by settling down to the source of thought. Pure consciousness, which is the basis of all experience, is itself conscious and being conscious, is aware of itself. The nature of consciousness is to be conscious, to be aware. Consciousness is aware of itself, hence the term Self-Rreferral.

We may not transcend when we read, but we do experience the story in a self-reflexive manner, pulling the experience of the story through the filter of our own consciousness. This filter allows for many, many viewpoints—the narrator’s viewpoint, the viewpoints of the characters, the reader’s viewpoint looking back from different memories, experiences, or accumulated knowledge that is stored in the awareness. The reader is aware of an even more underlying viewpoint when he or she “fills in the gaps” of the story, the phenomenon that Stanly Fish referred to. Multiple viewpoints are at work in any reader’s experience of story.

Reflection as Art(ful Pastime)

Kindred Spirits

Kindred Spirits

Reflection as Pastime: Strolling in nature, sitting in gardens, reposing with a cup of tea, people allowed time for entertaining their own thoughts in the nineteenth century. Reflection was almost an art form in certain circles in this era. With no television or computers, nature became a primary focus for reflection. Witness the art of Asher B. Durand where two gentlemen stand reflecting on the beauty of nature in Kindred Spirits.

Reflection as Art: The grandeur of nature is being glorified in this painting. The artist is also, however, framing the two gentlemen who stand taking in the vistas, so their act of awareness itself becomes paramount in the painting (pardon the pun). The artist is recognizing the grandeur of nature but also the grandeur of human awareness in its ability to respond to towering cliffs and rushing rivers. As the pace of life in the twentieth century sped up, time for reflection began to disappear. In today’s age of instant communication, reflection is virtually a lost art. Instead, we are more likely to receive a bombardment of images, either visual or textual, with virtually no time to consider them.

Reflection as a Part of Cognition: Yet reflection remains an essential component of thought, of art, and of writing even now. The relationship between reflection and writing intrigues me in my own process as a writer. I enjoy giving my thoughts time to meander. I discover nooks and crannies of thought I hadn’t noticed before. It is perhaps, self-evident that any time we sit to write, we turn back upon our own thoughts. Even if prompted by a deadline, a question, or an assignment, we turn inward to our own thought processes to write. Still, we ask ourselves: Do we have to time to just sit and think? Even when we write, the push is usually to see how quickly we can get it written.

Freewriting as a Form of Reflection: I am grateful to writing theorist Peter Elbow, who in the 1980s pioneered the concept of freewriting, allowing the reflective spirit to step back into the process of writing. When we freewrite, we move into that state of intentional awareness that allows our thoughts to flow unimpeded. If a thought that isn’t useful comes along, we don’t mind. Another thought will be along soon. The flow of thought is the important factor.

Reflection is Infinite: When we honor that flow of ideas and give the mind time to ruminate and reflect, we begin to appreciate how infinite the capacity of our mind is. Thoughts just keep on coming—one right after another—from that infinite reservoir of thought that is human consciousness. In a way, we can rely on the nature of our minds to write for us; we just have to be willing to sit at the keyboard.

Lets watch the ideas emerge. Let them be. Honor the creativity of our own minds. Revision can come later.

Image (in the public domain) retrieved on November 24, 2013 from