Fractals: A Reflection to Zoom In and Zoom Out

When do the words, “fractals” and “self-reflection” belong in the same sentence? In today’s blog post, Royce talks about using the idea of fractals to create opportunities for reflection and to explore coherence across different areas of her life. Read on to find out how. 

"Self-reflection is a humbling process. It’s essential to find out why you think, say, and do certain things… then better yourself."   —Sonya Teclai

In times of turbulence and uncertainty, I sometimes find it difficult to focus my mind on productive self-reflection. I find my mind wandering and pretty soon, I am off on an internal rant about something that’s bothering me. And as you can imagine, that doesn’t feel very helpful, and only increases my stress.

Last week, however, I was planning for an Adaptive Action Lab, thinking about fractals and considering new ways to help people apply them in human systems. I realized that most often we use physical characteristics to talk about fractals—a stalk of broccoli or a tree’s limbs and roots. I thought a bit about how our patterns of interaction and decision making often create a fractal at the different scales of our lives. I wondered how I might use the idea of a fractal to help focus my reflections. I wondered what difference it might make.

That night I spent some time reflecting on a couple of patterns I am seeing in the social discourse around me. The patterns seem destructive and divisive. So using the idea of scales or levels in a fractal I zoomed out, beyond my immediate life to consider what I might do to shift that discourse. Then I zoomed in closer to home to see what I might do. Then I zoomed directly into my own interactions and choices. I realized that, while I am not in charge of others’ interactions, I am accountable for what I contribute (both productive and destructive) to the discourse in my family and in how I think about larger social issues. Not only did that line of thinking help me stay focused on my reflections, it helped me identify some options for action that I can take immediately.

I realized this might be a way to help people in my class think more deeply about fractals. So I created a guided reflection to use with them, after briefly introducing the concept of fractals.

Here is the basis of the “script” I used in my class. Use it for yourself or with others and see if it makes any difference.

Relax and sit back in your chair, close your eyes if you want. Plant your feet on the floor and feel the solid support beneath you. Breathe and realize that your body is supported by the chair where you sit. Shift a bit, if you need to, so that you are comfortable, relaxed, and able to breathe deeply.

{Pause for a moment to allow any shifting or settling in.}

Reflect for a moment on something you value highly in your life. It may be a concept or belief. Maybe it’s a person you cherish. Maybe it’s a dream or aspirational goal you have set. Maybe it’s a set of Simple Rules you have set for yourself. Whatever it is, picture it in your mind. Is there a physical image? Is there a particular color? Is it words on a page? What does that value look like when you think about it? Breathe deeply to get in touch with the essence of what that value is and what it means to you.

{Pause for a moment to allow time to get in touch with that essence.}

Now, zoom out in your mind to consider your place in the broader community and/or at work, doing whatever you do to contribute to something that is much larger than yourself. How does that value come alive at that level of your life? In considering the uncertainty and turbulence in the broader world, how do you hold to that value. How does it inform your actions? Do you share it with others? When it’s present to you at that scale, how does that make you feel? When it’s not readily present to you, what might you do to bring it into those interactions and decisions you make. How can that value manifest for you in a way that contributes to that greater world?

{Pause for a moment to allow time to consider some options for action.}

Now, continuing to breathe and relax, zoom in a bit. Consider your place in your local neighborhood, circle of friends, and family. What are the ways you see that value manifesting in those relationships? In the work you do to support and engage at that level? What would you like to see that you don’t see? How can you bring that value into your connections, choices, actions in those spaces that are closer to home?

{Pause for a moment to allow time to consider some options for action.}

Finally, please consider how you embrace that thing you value most to be intentional about your decisions, choices, actions. Does that value provide a screen for seeing the world? Does it inform your actions in response to what you see around you? How does it fuel your inquiry into your world? How would you know when it did or when it didn’t? When do you have—or take—the time to put that value “front and center” as you wrestle with a difficult decision? How might you support yourself in taking time and honesty to do that if you don’t already? How might you celebrate and “grow” that skill if you already do hold that value in the center of your decisions?

{Pause for a moment to allow time to consider some options for action.}

Now, take a deep, cleansing breath, and think back across anything you may have seen or recognized in this time. In just a moment I (we) will do a 3-5 minute quick write. Everyone one will remain silent, as they put the pen to paper and write whatever comes up. Don’t worry about making sense or doing it right; Just capture whatever comes. It can be cleaned up later, if you need that to make sense of what you write. Now take another deep, cleansing breath, and then open your eyes when you are ready and begin your quick write.

What I found, as a result of this reflection—and similar ones I have done since—is that the structure of using the fractal metaphor to guide my thinking helps me focus. It helps me find a more coherent and useful way to consider the turbulence I feel. As an example, after one personal reflection using this approach, I recognized that I had become lax about some specific personal healthcare actions. So, for instance, I set a schedule and use the alarm on my phone to become more meticulous in paying attention to things I need to be doing.

Here’s what I saw in the class when I first used it. As a group, participants seemed more relaxed after the exploration toward the end of a long Zoom session. More than one person mentioned the experience in response to the “What worked?” question we use at the end of each day. Conversely, no one listed that in the “What could have worked better?” category. Different participants said how it helped them really understand how and why fractals could be a useful metaphor to support change.

Based on my own experience, I plan to keep using this as a way of structuring my own reflections. Based on the response of the participants in the course, I will continue using this particular activity to help people experience, rather than just read about, fractals. I will also continue looking for other reflections and experiential ways to introduce seemingly abstract concepts in more concrete and personal way.

I would love it if you would try this reflection process, and then let me know how it goes! Be in touch!


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