My Journey into Mindfulness

Here lately, I have taken a personal turn towards the literature of mindfulness and Buddhism as a way to relieve stress and anxiety. Given this turn, the topic of Dr. Cameron Gordon’s workshop on fitting mindfulness into a hectic schedule was of particular interest due to personal as well as professional connections I might make between mindfulness and my career. Being an avid practitioner of yoga, I was introduced to the central tenets of mindfulness and Buddhism by several yogis who incorporated such principles into their classes. (One yogi even structured a series of classes over several months around Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Art of Living.) Because of this early exposure to mindfulness and Buddhism in yoga classes, I was already quite familiar with some of the central principles of mindfulness, specifically detachment, non-judgement/non-violence, and letting go of expectations and outcomes. Despite this novice experience, Cameron’s workshop helped to clarify some misconceptions about mindfulness.

To begin, I found it enlightening when Cameron clarified that relaxation is not a goal of mindfulness; instead, the goal is to (re)gain and practice focus on a single task or idea. He also clarified that clearing the mind is not the goal. As previously mentioned, although I am familiar with Hanh’s texts on mindfulness and Buddhism, it was helpful to have Cameron clarify these misconceptions, as I was initially under the impression that relaxation was a goal. This clarification was therefore actually a relief, as I have experienced quite a few mindfulness sessions and yoga classes where I did not leave feeling relaxed at all after having completed the session. Relaxation, as he explained it, is simply a side-effect of mindfulness, not the primary destination.

Second, I appreciated Cameron’s explanation of why removing expectations is imperative for curiosity. Expectations impede our ability to be curious about the larger world around us. This removal of expectations has been influential in thinking about and working towards letting go of my personal and professional expectations for my own life. My attachment to expectations really began during the months leading up to my dissertation defense and simultaneously being on the academic job market. This attachment to expectations resulted in tremendous amounts of anxiety including anxiety attacks. As an early career academic, it is quite easy to become deeply attached to expectations and outcomes. First of all, academia fosters these types of anxieties and attachments because we are conditioned to want more and more in regard to lines on our CVs (a point I discuss in my reflection on Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber’s The Slow Professor). I do not think this is intrinsic to only academia, as I think this is largely conditioned by work culture in the United States and other capitalist economies. By becoming attached to expectations, we greatly diminish our capacity to become absorbed by our present conditions, especially our teaching and student mentorship. Second of all, academia conditions us to focus on outcomes and assessment rather than impart purpose and perspective to our students and allowing purpose to drive our teaching and research. Indeed, the neoliberal university’s pursuit of measuring learning outcomes and course expectations fosters a negative work environment. (The Slow Professor does a superb job of distilling this focus on learning outcomes and assessment by the corporate university but without the discussion of mindfulness principles.) In order to live and embody a practice of mindful teaching and living, we have to detach ourselves from these expectations and outcomes because this relationship (as Hanh makes clear in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching) is an unhealthy one that harms ourselves and our students.

The next point I would like to address is the devotion to a practice of mindfulness which Cameron emphasized during his workshop. It is our devotion to a practice of mindfulness that builds endurance. This can be done through both formal and informal means. One of the formal ways that I incorporate mindfulness into my daily life is through my curriculum (a point I discuss below further). Additionally, I incorporate an informal practice each day I drive to campus and especially as I’m walking to my classes (or, to be honest, I attempt to incorporate an informal practice as I drive to campus!). During my daily commute, I typically listen to audiobooks. Currently, I am listening to The Slow Professor for a second time as well as In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Culture of Speed by Carl Honoré. I also intend to revisit Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching in the coming weeks. While my formal practice in the classroom allows me to put into practice mindfulness principles, it is my informal practice that sustains me and allows me to build endurance. However, it is important to keep in mind that a practice of mindfulness and building endurance is not a linear process, a point mentioned by Cameron. There are many times during the week when I have to strive harder to maintain this practice, and during these moments, I find myself returning to the principles of mindfulness as a way to remind myself of the path to understanding and stress management.

Finally, I would like to consider how we might incorporate mindfulness into the curriculum (a point mentioned previously). As a contingent faculty member, I am looking for a way to frame mindfulness as an important aspect of the curriculum. If a practice of mindfulness allows us to navigate daily life stresses, I have to wonder to what extent might mindfulness become a high-impact teaching practice in order to help students navigate difficulty in both the academy and beyond it (mindfulness does not appear on the list compiled by the Association of American Colleges and Universities). I have incorporated mindfulness writing exercises as a way to focus students. For example, on the first day of class, I tasked students with discussing their expectations for the class and/or the semester. After they shared aloud their expectations, I had students literally tear their expectations into pieces as a symbolic gesture of letting go of their expectations (many students quite enjoyed this activity; others, however, were annoyed that I requested that they tear their expectations into pieces after having spent so much time and careful attention in composing the free-write exercise that first day). Most of my students, which includes mostly first-year freshman, but also sophomores, seem to buy in to it, or at least they pretend to buy in to it. But there are quite a few still resistant to it. Cameron indicted that of his own students, 80% buy in to mindfulness but 20% do not. This begs the question: how do we engage students in mindfulness principles that encourage their growth and develop as burgeoning intellectuals but, also, allow them to navigate daily stressors and life issues? Finally, how do we convince our colleagues and our departments to see mindfulness and its association with high impact teaching practices as a way to facilitate and sustain positive learning environments?