Study, Reflection, and Practice

Photo by Lightscape on Unsplash
27 October 2019

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending a meditation workshop at the Amaravati Buddhist Monastery. In one teaching, the monk remarked on the three pillars of learning:

  • Study
  • Reflection
  • Practice

Each is valuable, but true learning can only happen when we combine all three. Study consists of what we might read in a book or hear from a teacher. Reflection gives us time to consider, reframe, and assimilate this information into our own personal context. Reflection is the glue that links study to the final stage: practice.

Through practice we begin to evaluate our fresh understanding and receive some of the benefits that these seeds of knowledge offer. When we practice, we appreciate all the subtle nuances of how both the teaching and our understanding of it fit into reality. Practice provides an opportunity to fill in the missing pieces which are inexpressible and unknowable by any means except direct experience. The ancient Greeks and countless philosophers explored this idea under the name “praxis”.

In my experience, we too often neglect reflection and, therefore, our practice never changes which means, it’s not practice at all, but repetition of the same (ineffective, inefficient, unpleasant) ways of doing things. As a result, we never receive the benefits and we label the framework, methodology, dogma, etc. as flawed.

Study without practice is like buying new running shoes but never leaving the house.

It struck me that if this technique is good enough for freeing ourselves from the shackles of samsara and dukkha then it’s probably good enough for learning things like OKRs and agile ways of working.

I’m currently working with several teams who’ve been through a number of transformation programmes and an even greater number of agile coaches. One theme I’ve noticed is teams saying they’re “doing agile” without really considering how to be agile. In other words, most of these teams have studied agile ways of working, but they haven’t really reflected and decided how to change their practice in order to improve.

Most of my coaching with these teams consists of inviting them to first reflect on what they’ve already learned and then to take ownership of their practice and make adjustments that they believe will lead to improvement. Several teams are now owning and adjusting their practice and the difference is huge.

After doing some research, I found a number of parallels with Reflective Practice and even an early reference to What? So what? Now what? taken from Terry Borton’s 1970 reading of Gestalt therapy, there are even a number of learning cycles very reminiscent of the (now infamous) “build, measure, learn” loop.

All of this is a great validation that continual improvement is nothing more than the humble and repeated act of observing, reflecting, and experimenting and that finding safety and joy in not-knowing is one of the greatest and simplest ways to ensure long-term success and growth.

Tags:  agile   buddhism   learning