A Reflection Model for Transforming
Life Experience Into Wisdom

Editor's note: Rosalie Muschal-Reinhardt has been an educator for over five decades. In her personal spiritual journey she learned that to fully enjoy her “one, wild and precious life” it was important to reflect on the meaning of life’s experiences. She has shared this model for reflection for over 30 years. As a Sage-ing Leader with the Sage-ingŪ Guild, she recorded a DVD which includes this tool, along with an Introduction to Sage-ing. Contact Rosalie at Alrosmr@frontiernet.net.

One of the major concepts of the Sage-ing Program, the conscious aging approach I teach, is a process that invites people to “harvest one’s wisdom from long-life experiences.”

Wisdom does not come from having experiences.
Wisdom comes from reflecting on one’s life experiences.

In Western society we tend to view our lives as linear. We move from one experience to another as though we are jumping from one event to another. A major part of this Reflection Model is to understand our lives in a circle or a cycle. In this model we are asked to go back and learn what the experiences of our lives have taught us. In Celtic spirituality, the continuum is seen as a circle which begins with birth and ends with our death.

In his book, From Age-ing to Sage-ing, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi speaks of a “Fourfold Model of Self.” The mystic Kabbalah, like all holistic systems, “teaches that we express ourselves on four levels: the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.” Healthy persons strive to integrate all four levels of their being. Carl Jung referred to the same quaternity when he attributes four functions to human personality: sensation, feeling, intellect, and intuition.

Paulo Freiere in his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, provides a formula that enables us to integrate these four aspects of Jung’s personality functions: “Experience + Reflection = Praxis,” where praxis is defined as moving into action. Praxis requires an understanding that leads to the action. It also requires a person to have internalized the values that moves that person into action.

When years ago I began to share the tool that Freiere had articulated, I found out quickly that his formula is too fast for most people. So I derived a three-step approach:

  1. Experience + Reflection = Understanding

  2. Understanding + Reflection = Action

  3. Action + Reflection = Praxis.

I also found out the word “reflection” did not meet the needs of people whose personalities were based primarily on their rational capabilities. So, again, I adapted the formula to accommodate their needs:

  1. Experience + Reflection/Analysis = Understanding
  2. Understanding + Reflection/Analysis = Action
  3. Action + Reflection/Analysis = Praxis.

Influenced by process education and the reality that all members of a group are both teachers and learners, I have offered this Reflection Model to people for over 30 years. Participants in Sage-ing Programs which I lead respond favorably to the tool.

An Example: Images of aging

Here is an example of how the tool works with one of the topics of the Sage-ing program, “Images of Aging.” Using the methodology which the Sage-ing program relies on — input, interactions, readings, exercises, and harvesting the wisdom of the group — participants are invited to come up with their own images of aging. At the end of the program, they respond to four questions related to the experiences they have just had. Note how these four questions address the four functions of the personality:

  1. What happened to you because of the experience? (This is the “‘sensation” part.) What did you hear, see, smell, taste? What information called forth an “Ah” in you?
  2. What are your thoughts about what happened? (This is the rational response.)
  3. What are your feelings about what happened? (This is the affective response.) Note: Personality differences may mean some people choose to focus on their feelings first, and then their thoughts; the order does not matter.

After responding to these three questions, they move to:

  1. What meaning does this experience have for you? Or, asked another way: What insights or new understandings do you come away with from the experience? (This is the intuition connection.)

Participants’ new images tend to acknowledge the paradox of aging, that it is a time of both loss and spiritual growth and adventure. They often explore their many experiences of the difficulties that come with aging: the onset of illness, the death of loved ones, the many changes, the unrealized dreams. Were those losses the total picture? Or did these elders show courage, perseverance, tenacity, and wisdom as they dealt with difficulties? Through this dialogue they realize that this new Understanding is “new” only because they have not been aware of it.

Having completed Step 1 in the process (Experience + Reflection/Analysis = Understanding), they are now ready to take Step 2 — Understanding + Reflection/Analysis = Action. Now the four questions are repeated. And this second iteration might result in the participant acting upon a new Understanding of losses associated with some particular event. Or they might choose to focus on their spiritual growth, if they came to the Understanding that the event revealed their potential for such growth.

Now we have arrived at Step 3 in the process: Action + Reflection/Analysis = Praxis. The Experience has led to Understanding, and that Understanding has led to an Action. When the person reflects on the Action, using the same four questions, it helps them to internalize the theory of the experience. That is what Praxis is — an internalizing of the values that came from the process.

The next time a person has an experience whose meaning is subject to interpretation — “Aging is a time of Losses” or, alternately, “Aging is a time of spiritual growth” — the person will have the experience of integrating the rational, affective, sensate, and intuitive aspects of their personality. This provides a wonderful experience of approaching life events in a holistic manner.

There is also a societal benefit to this process. When people encounter age-ism, they will be empowered by their new praxis to be an “elder voice” that helps to actively change the paradigm of aging in our society. Imagine a group of elders insisting that they “deserve honor and respect” because they are “still growing, still learners, still with potential who have a commitment and connection to the future of our world.” Imagine . . .

Imagine the “Elder Corps” that Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi has proposed — elders from the United States meeting with elders of other countries and sharing their wisdom. Imagine . . .

Imagine a group of elders participating in the session on “Images of Aging” who move from disliking their wrinkles to finding themselves beautiful or handsome because of their wrinkles. Now, that is an example of changing the paradigm from aging to Sage-ing!

Every theme in the Sage-ing curriculum can be adapted to this process. Life review, life repair, and forgiveness work provide many opportunities to enable elders to reach new Understandings, take Actions, and internalize values that are healing to them — to harvest the wisdom from life experiences.

Two Other Examples

Fear of Change

My colleague Peg Morris was a social worker in an Acute Care for the Elderly unit (ACE Floor) at a local hospital. Often, when the patient was being discharged, the topic of having some time in the near future to move from their home to some form of assisted living would come up. Often, patients expressed their fear of change.

Peg offered them the opportunity to remember the many changes that have happened to them in their lives. This is done, of course, in a more narrative form rather than filling out a Reflection Model worksheet. The results, however, are the same. They were asked the first question, to remember changes that are natural in life: infant to toddler, toddler to child, child to teenager, teenager to adult, adult to older person, older person to elder.

This was followed by being asked to remember the major changes in their lives. They recalled marriages, divorces, birth of children, children leaving the nest, death of loved ones. Indeed, they had been through many, many changes, and they had survived the changes with wisdom.

They were then asked their thoughts and their feelings about these changes. When asked what meaning this had for their lives, they were empowered to be open (albeit not necessarily eager) to consider yet another change.

Fearing Death Because It Is an Unknown

Another reality in older persons’ lives is their fear of death because it is an “unknown.” Using the Reflection model again, the person is asked to recall the many unknowns in her or his life. First of all, was their birth an unknown? Did they really know what was going to happen when certain decisions were made? Graduations, marriages, having children, not having children, severing relationships, the deaths of loved ones — these are all examples of times in one’s life where the unknown is encountered.

As they discuss their thoughts and feeling about these many unknowns, they can come to the internalized Understanding that they have successfully faced many fears of the unknown in their lives. Fear of death is another opportunity to do so.

You have spent your life collecting experiences. Now it is time to mine those experiences for meaning. It is a highly rewarding exercise that will not disappoint you.