Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Singing My Song

Written by: on September 16, 2014

Someone once told me that as individuals we end up all singing the same song again and again, meaning that no matter what sermon I preach, paper I write, or even conversation I have, it usually revolves around the same guiding principle that I value and is unique to me. For me, reading Sensory Ethnography reminds me of my song: the value of reflection, becoming more self-aware in relationship to how God has made me and the rest of the world, with all of our senses.

I’ll confess to practicing Bayard’s suggestion on Sensory Ethnography by trying something I’ve not done before in my reading/non-reading. I read the first couple of pages until I landed on the phrase “reflexive attention” (by the way, I accidentally read this book first instead of Pink’s other book, so the word was new in this first read). I found the definition of “reflexive attention” to have language I use often – becoming aware, use of perception and place, allowing for imagination, and finally my favorite line: “learning as embodied, emplaced, sensorial, and empathetic” (p. 63). With my kindling interest in Pink’s articulation of this part of sensory ethnography, I searched only for places that spoke to that particular phrase. Here’s what I discovered:

When it comes to reflexive attention, the ethnographer has to be intentional in both the initial fieldwork and the ongoing personal responses. In the study of culture/people group/experience, keen observation focuses on everything going on, not just the words spoken and/or visual cues, but the underlying interaction that accompanies smells and tastes, touch and space in the ordinary and extraordinary. As Pink says, “knowledge beyond language” (p. 64) is a key component to understanding a culture from within for sensory ethnography.

Moreover, to positively compound the learning, the researcher needs to use reflexive attention to deepen the insight through ongoing analysis of his/her own internal physiological responses to the experience(s). Unless the ethnographer is aware of the personal impact, the study will be limited and even skewed.

For me, I practice sensory ethnography (before I even knew what it was) in offering spiritual direction to people. I have to constantly be aware of my own internal reactions as well as the external environment in which I offer what I hope is sacred space. While I don’t necessarily share all my internal reactions (in fact, it’s rare that I do, other than listening to what the Holy Spirit may prompt me to do with them), I know that they influence how I listen to the person sharing his/her soul with me.  My greatest learning comes when I work with my Spiritual Direction supervisor to recognize and then gently hold what was going on inside of me when it comes to caring for and listening to another person.

As well, part of sacred space in spiritual direction means creating an environment that supports a person who wants to be able to listen to what God has for them. In the Eastern Orthodox world, their grasp of what it means to encounter God through the use of incense, icons, and liturgy – the sensory experience – offers a fresh expression that I wish my Evangelical tradition would use more.   In my practice of spiritual direction, I want to be aware of what external influences might encourage or discourage one to recognize God, the one who has always been present, but maybe not acknowledged.

While sensory ethnography is not about creating the environment, more accurately, it’s about recording it, Pink’s focus on reflexive attention is a tool that recognizes how significant a response to an environment can be.   Like Christ, we are incarnate people who are impacted by our own humanity, environment, and the work of God’s Holy Spirit, all at the same time…while singing my song J.

About the Author

Mary Pandiani

Spiritual Director, educator/facilitator, follower of Jesus, a cultivator of sacred space for those who want to encounter God

9 responses to “Singing My Song”

  1. Dave Young says:

    Some really good insights in your post. I especially appreciate your reflection on the environment in which you do spiritual direction. The external environment, how it’s important that people relax in your presence and feel like they are safe. Yet, you also spoke to to need to reflect on your own internal conversation a keen awareness to what’s going on around you. Such “self-awareness” is certainly critical in being a safe counselor. I appreciate your insights. Honestly I didn’t really reflect on the sensory aspects of my own ministry, I wish I did. Also I imagine you to be a very good spiritual director.

  2. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Mary, Similarly, when I found a phrase in “Doing Sensory Ethnography” I went with it. I actually missed or didn’t catch the reflexive attention line, but was captured by the concept of emplacement. To me the experiential journey of life and learning is about the taking-on of others’ and their lives and experiences. Nothing could make life more rich. I would agree that having, keeping, improving our reflexive attention and approach to living “life to the full” is the key!

    • Mary Pandiani says:

      I almost went with and explored the word emplacement as I’d never heard it before. I’m still not quite sure I completely understand it still, but I find the idea of being “firmly placed” as a posture that helps with engaging culture. It reminds me of keeping my feet in what is foundational, while being flexible to live “life to the full.”

  3. Jon Spellman says:

    I must admit, the notion of reflexivity in a research context is new to me altogether. Prior to this initial round of reading and discussion, my ideas of research pretty much orbited around observing, recording, analyzing but all from a safe distance. It is helpful for me to consider the fact that my presence in a research field will, in some measure whether small or great,have an impact on the activity being studied. It seems to offer a more honest approach to digging into a culture, discovering the real, unvarnished realities present there.

    Thanks Mary.

  4. Mary Pandiani says:

    Jon – I appreciate how you continue to stay open to what is new. I hope I’m able to take on that kind of humility.

  5. Dawnel Volzke says:

    Mary, very insightful. Do you think that intuition or discernment plays an important role into how well someone can do sensory ethnography? Your post reminds me that there must be a very careful balance between the facts and what we ‘feel’. And, you are very astute in that we must be aware of when the Holy Spirit is leading or revealing information to us.

  6. Travis says:

    Blessings Mary – As a pastor i have to deal with a lot people who merely function on feelings and what is going on outside of them. One of my challenges as a pastor is getting them to have faith in the word of God. I come from a Pentecostal background and i was more motivated by how I felt about everything. I had to learn that the word of the Lord is to believed even if you can’t feel it. And this is hard for a lot of people people if they don’t feel good they don’t believe God is going to move. Yet not there is an inner witness that i feel more strongly even when i have outside forces telling me something different. This has been developed through faith. I think we should foster atmospheres that are spiritual and faith filled so that there is a haven from those outside things that bombard people!

  7. Brian Yost says:

    Thanks for pointing out the importance of self-awareness. We constantly have reactions to what we see, hear, etc. Becoming proficient at recognizing our internal responses does not come naturally, it is something we must work on.

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