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Differentiating Reflection From Unproductive Thoughts

Makeena Rivers | Mar 9, 2020

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Makeena Rivers | Mar 9, 2020

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

Thinking deeply about your actions and the world around you is admirable. But what makes someone truly reflective? I’ve realized that thinking deeply and true, healthy reflection aren’t one and the same. 

Does being reflective simply mean that you have a lot of thoughts running through your mind, or is there some other criteria? Often, when we think we are in the middle of processing something, we’re actually just caught up in a muck of unproductive thoughts. Thoughts rooted in worry, fear, or in the past block us from taking productive action and reaching inner peace. 

We can easily find ourselves labeling unproductive thoughts as “reflection”. Mistaking anxious or stagnant thoughts for an increased ability to empathize or raised consciousness about the world around us can lead us down a path of despair. Instead of grounding ourselves in the moment with a hopeful attitude towards the future, we struggle to stay both aware and empowered. We miss out on new opportunities for growth and on opportunities to contribute to our community. 

The Baha’i writings tell us:

Do not allow your minds to dwell on the present, but with eyes of faith look into the future, for in truth the Spirit of God is working in your midst. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks

Rather than trying to control the way we want our future to go, we can imagine spiritual alignment and goodness coming our way. Then, instead of fixating on our imaginations, we can detach, knowing that we don’t know what the future will bring. We can trust that God will take care of things. As many would say, we “let go and let God”: 

That seeker must, at all times, put his trust in God, must renounce the peoples of the earth, must detach himself from the world of dust, and cleave unto Him Who is the Lord of Lords. He must never seek to exalt himself above any one, must wash away from the tablet of his heart every trace of pride and vain-glory, must cling unto patience and resignation, observe silence and refrain from idle talk. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah

Obviously, this requires a lot of practice for those of us used to anxiously thinking or ruminating on something from our past. Nicole LePera, a Philadelphia-based holistic psychologist, has one of my new favorite Instagram accounts. She recently posted a short, but helpful, list of questions designed to help us figure out whether we’re being reflective or stuck in a space of anxiety:

Exploratory Questions

  1. Are these thoughts helping me to create a new solution?
  2. Do these thoughts change an outcome?
  3. Are these thoughts affirming a belief I have about myself?
  4. Can I do something about what I’m thinking in the present moment?

Dr. LePera also differentiates productive and unproductive thoughts with the following brief definitions:

Productive Thoughts

thoughts that create, solve problems, plan and bring insight

Unproductive Thoughts

thoughts of rumination, predictive thinking (attempts to control the future), racing thoughts, and repetitive thoughts

We have to find a way to unlearn replaying unproductive thoughts. As we implement this balanced attitude, we can trust that things will fall into place, even when things don’t happen immediately. 

Once his effort is directed in the proper channel, if he does not succeed today, he will succeed tomorrow. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West

Our community’s well-being connects deeply to individual mental health, as none of us exist in a vacuum. To truly address our unproductive thoughts it is also necessary to address the root cause of them. 

As we clear out unproductive thoughts, we create space to think constructively about the world around us. The traumas and injustices that exist in each of our lives often tie into wider issues. Shifting from sitting in stagnant thoughts to being truly reflective and thinking productive thoughts allows us to realize that even though each of us is only one person, we each have the power to shine some light in our daily lives. 

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  • Nava Sarracino
    Jun 28, 2020
    Great article. Very interesting that Abdul'baha tells us to look to the future and not the present. Yet it's so different to how people are looking to the future right now - his is positive and society is mainly negative.
  • Linda Elkins
    Apr 26, 2020
    Thank you Makeena. I found this very helpful and after reading I wanted MORE!
  • Rosslyn and Steven Osborne
    Mar 10, 2020
    Thank you very much Makeena, for this has been a huge bug-bare for me over the years. It has taken many hard lessons to finally turn things over to God. Yes I still stuff up and get all creative with my plans but now I can pull myself back and ask forgiveness and try to leave my future in His hands.
  • Ella Birjandian
    Mar 10, 2020
    Brilliant article! I find this article very useful! Thank you so much!
  • Grant Hindin Miller
    Mar 9, 2020
    Clear, accessible, and relevant. Excellent, Makeena.
  • Mary Chiang
    Mar 9, 2020
    Once again, your post is super relevant and timely.. Thank you!
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