Meg Barker and Steven Stanley reflect on the potentials of social mindfulness for academic life and work.
Rosalind Gill has recently spoken out about the secrecies and silences which exist about the injuries of academic life (Gill, 2010). Gill names these injuries as ‘exhaustion, stress, overload, insomnia, anxiety, shame, aggression, hurt, guilt and feelings of out-of-placeness, fraudulence and fear of exposure’ (p.229). She locates them within: the precariousness of academic work, particularly for career-early academics and those trying to secure promotion; the intensity of work in a world driven by research excellence frameworks and constant monitoring and tracking; the ‘Sisyphean’ nature of inboxes and to do lists and sense of being ‘always on’; and the toxicity of processes of review, appraisal and application where people are frequently judged and dismissed by their peers, and even subject to brutal and dehumanising attacks.
How might mindfulness practices help us to engage differently with this academic world? On a very simple level, building mindful practices into our lives individually ensures that we pause regularly to reflect on our current experience before plunging in again. Perhaps this will help us to engage with projects which most connect with our values in the present moment, instead of spending hours marking one essay or writing one paragraph when that is not the place that we are in right now. Perhaps it will help us to know when we need to retreat and reflect, and when we are ready to act (Batchelor, 1997).
Also, mindfulness practice alerts us to the cravings which may be in play in our work: Are we yearning for approval or validation? Are we driven to make sense of our own (and others’) experience or to prove others wrong? Are we caught up in the everlasting (and neverending) quest for the completed to-do list or the empty inbox? Finally, in its rejection of any notion of a fixed self, mindfulness may enable us to treat the dismissive review or the unsuccessful application for promotion more lightly. Instead of personalising the experience and falling into a spiral of shame and a sense that we must be a fraud who has been – or will be – ‘found out’, we can locate such experiences in disconnections between ourselves and others or within systems. We can recognise that we are not fixed by one particular presentation we give, or piece of writing that we produce, or the response that we receive about it.
Lest this sounds like a recipe for acceptance of the toxic structures, systems and processes which Gill rightly highlights, we need to remember the social engagement and political activist focus of early Buddhist mindfulness. Tuning into, and reflecting upon, our experiences in these ways will likely cause us to bring them into question, and if we can speak these questions then this can be a power for change.