As the activities of the Baha’i community have grown and developed in complexity, a pattern of action has emerged. Baha’is all around the world are engaged in cycles of activity that are guided by reflection, planning and action. This creates a collective rhythm and unifies a diversity of activities, such as devotional meetings, children’s classes and study circles.
I learned from the fifth book in Ruhi Institute sequence of courses, Releasing the Powers of Junior Youth, that living an integrated life means placing service at the centre and integrating other facets around it. To me, this means that we can benefit from using these three capacities and can add the rhythm of reflection-planning-action to our personal lives. In addition to service, we can also focus on other things we wish to include and develop in our daily lives.
One analogy that we can use to understand reflection, planning and action is from Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Imagine that you are lost in a huge, dense forest and need to find your way out of it. In the reflection phase, which Covey likens to leadership, you climb the tallest tree and try to get your bearings and find out where you are and where you need to go. This is closely followed by planning, or in other words, management. You choose a course to follow and set another point in the distance to aim towards, a point at which when you reach it, you will take stock again. The next phase is action: you climb back down the tree and start hacking your way through the dense undergrowth of the forest along your planned route. Then once you have travelled for a certain amount of time or reached your planned destination, you climb the tallest tree there, and take stock again, repeating the same steps.
So how does this relate to our lives, which for many of us are very urban? Well we might say that modern life is just as overgrown as a forest and very difficult to navigate through. We are constantly bombarded with deadlines, responsibilities and imagery that confuse and overwhelm us. We often don’t know what our direction in life should be let alone how to get “there”. We constantly find that we can gain no perspective because there seems to be no escape from the noise and turmoil of our frantic lives.
For this reason, we need to climb the “tallest tree” that we can find in order to see the bigger picture. So, what is this tree? It might be prayer and meditation, studying the Writings, time in nature, a walk by the ocean, reading a meaningful book or staying up late after the family have all gone to bed. And what do we do when we “get to the top” of this “tree”? We meditate, we ponder, we re-consider, we analyse, we remember, we yearn… We leave the mindset of schedules and deadlines and pressures; we enter a state of reflection. And the reason that we need to climb this tree is that from down in the undergrowth of our hectic lives, we cannot see clearly. We cannot think and open our mind in the midst of everything, so we need to elevate ourselves above it.
And up there in the canopy, we can consider things, great and small. For example, we can think about the way we eat, and how to eat healthier; reflect on our social life, and find more meaningful ways of relating to people we know and those who we meet; consider our financial situation and where we would like to be, or meditate on our relationship with God and how to draw closer to Him. Any aspect can be the focus of our reflection and conscious intention. And how often do we need to reflect? Baha’u’llah says: “Bring thyself to account each day…”1
As we are coming back “to earth”, we can start to become a bit more practical and careful not to leave our visions high up in the sky to be blown away in the winds of the world. We are able to break up our ultimate goals into smaller, more manageable steps: we become systematic. And then we act. We can look at where we are and where we want to be and move forward. As Baha’u’llah says:
…those who journey in the garden land of knowledge … see the end in the beginning.2
We start working on our plan. And we approach it with resolve and determination. One of the things Baha’u’llah most loved to see in people was “the ability to carry a task once begun, through to its end.”3
But although these are three distinct steps, they are also interrelated. Paulo Freire, the renowned Brazilian educator, explained throughout his writings on education and social change that reflection and action work hand in hand: one cannot exist in isolation to the other for both feed in to the other.
Critical consciousness is brought about, not through an intellectual effort alone, but through praxis – through the authentic union of action and reflection.4
Likewise, planning and action also need to co-exist. For example, when I started working on a plan to eat healthier, I reflected on how things were affecting my body and altered the plan to better achieve my objective. Planning is important, but a plan is a means to an end, not an end in itself, so we should never set a plan in stone.
I like to think that this way of living merges two different approaches: being organised and systematic, and going with the flow. This means that you don’t roam aimlessly relying solely on inspiration and passing whims, but you also are not a slave to a rigid plan. You utilise your rationality, creativity and spirituality together.