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Live and Learn

Rachel Twort explains the benefits of reflective cycles when analysing your experiences.

A believer is not bitten from the same hole twice. (Bukhari/ Muslim)



We all have our snakes in the grass, waiting to slither across our path and stop us in our tracks. I seem to keep wandering into the same abysses again and again. Sometimes I seek excuses for myself, like it is better to be victim than aggressor. But really it is my failure to learn that has led me back into the hole.



So how can we stop history repeating itself?



Being aware
Do we stop to reflect on our experiences? Muhasaba, or taking account of oneself, is an important act for a Muslim. It can reveal the patterns we fall into that we may be unaware of if we do not break routine to think. If we are on the alert for the trap, we should be less likely to stumble into it.



I need to quit using the Sudoku app on my phone to wind down before sleep and replace it with quiet reflective time. As an app addict, I use Athan from Islamic Finder to track my prayers and my diary to review goals. Others use Facebook and blogging to form reflections. However, the public nature of these tools can limit the level of analysis and revelation. Also, as they are public, they should offer something of interest and benefit to the reader. I do love a good bit of stationery and so find the Siratt Lifebook a useful tool for checking and setting goals; they also do a journal. Productivemuslim.com has some useful tools too.



Reflection is a process that has stages. The stages help lead us to identifying and making the necessary changes.



1. Being detached
The rush of emotions attached to an experience can prevent us from seeing the wood for the trees. It is useful to name the experience; state the facts, the bare bones of what happened. Acknowledge the heat of feeling and let it pass. Move onto listing or naming the concrete facts. This tool can help stop runaway thoughts, such as fear and anger.



2. Evaluate and analyse your experience
The next step is to get to the bottom of how and why the situation occurred. To do this, we need to step outside of the situation. There are a number of lenses that offer a different view: our past experience, other people’s perspectives and the religious perspective. Together these lenses can tell us who we are and what really happened.



Our past experiences shape us and our approach to experiences.



Hopefully, our past experiences have given us the tools to understand our current situation. Sometimes, however, they can become millstones around our necks, dragging us below the waves. In the current situation, have we become victim to a learnt pattern, assumption or emotional response? In this case, we need to be open to seeing our situation through fresh eyes.



Taking advice from others offers another perspective.



The believer is the mirror of the believer. (Abu Dawud)



Our sisters may be able to see our mistakes and shortcomings more objectively that we can. Being open to sincere advice is a great and hard-to-achieve virtue. In conflict situations, it is very useful to imagine the scenario from the other person’s point of view – without making assumptions about their experience, of course.



The Qur’an and sunnah offer us the ultimate check on moral correctitude.



Other people’s advice needs to be checked against the ultimate Criterion – the Qur’an and Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad r. The Qur’an and the Hadith offer us insight and advice for all the situations we may find ourselves in.


3. Make an action plan
We now know how we feel, what happened and why it happened, but let’s not leave it there. What are we going to do now? We need to make a plan of action so we are ready for the next time the snake creeps out of the hole. How can we do things differently next time?



4. Breaking the pattern
When it sneaks out from that hole again, swing the axe and cut its toothy head off! But you know it’s not that easy. Whatever experience you have wrestling the monster, you will need to reflect, learn new lessons and devise an action plan. Let the Reflective Cycle begin again…



5. The cycle begins again…
This cycle of muhasaba could be summarised as the ‘what? so what? now what?’ approach. This is a model of reflective thinking used by educators and other professionals to encourage learning from experience.



What happened?
Robina was at a circle in the mosque with her four young children. The children were very active and noisy, clearly disturbing other attendees. Another sister sternly told one of Robina’s children off and told him to sit down and be quiet.



What were your feelings or reactions?
Robina was mortified. She was highly annoyed with the approach of the sister. It made her feel judged and inadequate and also guilty for disturbing others.



What was good or bad about the experience?
The feelings evoked were negative and it made her want to stop attending the circle. On the positive, she realised the boundaries and expectations in the mosque were different to her own.



What do the lenses of other people’s perception and religious perspective tell you?
The other sister may have felt differently about the bringing up of children. She may have felt that she had more of a stake and a role in Robina’s child’s disciplining. She may have spoken to the child out of a sense of communal ownership.



What can be concluded from the experience?
The children need to behave within certain boundaries when they attend a circle. Robina does not like other people disciplining her children.



What do you want to do next time?
Robina decided to make the boundaries of the mosque clear to her children and to remove them from the situation if their behaviour became too boisterous.



Robina also decided that she did not want other people to feel they could scold her children. At the beginning of the next circle she explained to the other sisters that she had no childcare and really wanted to benefit from attending the circle. She asked that if anyone felt that any issue regarding her children’s behaviour needed to be addressed they should speak to her and she would deal with it herself.



Starting points for further reading:
Gibbs Reflective Cycle
Kolb’s Experiential Learning
Brookfield’s Lenses



Rachel Twort is a writer and teacher covered in bite marks.