Mindfulness and Graduate School

I have been thinking a lot about mindfulness this week. It was probably sparked by a quote I read by Oriah Mountain Dreamer. It is called The Invitation, but more than the words I was struck by the idea of intentional living.

I read this last Saturday night while I was in Richmond. I went there to attend one of the parties for one of my best Hollins friends. I have been very intentional about attending these parties this summer. Even though we live ~6 hours apart, we normally have been seeing each other about once a year. I don’t make it east and she doesn’t make it west. This spring when my original entry into the job market did not work out and I had made the decision to slow my pace towards completing my degree, one of the benefits I saw was time to travel this summer. To take the time to be there for friends and attend these parties and the weddings early in the fall.

While I have been traveling for these parties, I have also been intentional about exploring and re-exploring parts of my state. While in Richmond I drove to Charles City to visit William Henry Harrison’s (president in 1841) birthplace. I arrived to Berkeley Plantation as it was opening on a Sunday morning. As many of my travels are, the tour consisted of a retired couple and me. Walking around this home and grounds from the 18th century, there was an interesting sense of peace. Not because of the history, but the taking the time to stop and take it all in. I wasn’t on Facebook or Twitter or e-mail. I was looking at how the sun hit the brick buildings and the James River. How the mix of magnolia, brick, and historic paint reminded me so much of Hollins and why I chose that university. Even time to contemplate how there is history we know and talk about and history that we do not. But I took that time. I wasn’t rushing back to Blacksburg or worrying about what I could be doing that was work related. I stopped, and thought, and processed.

Due to factors of life, I have recently been taking back over some of the household chores that my brother and father had been doing [I have had the privilege and the challenge of living with my family of origin during my PhD work]. As I was doing tasks such as loading/unloading the dishwasher, grocery shopping, and mowing the yard, I realized that by slowing down and processing what I was doing, without lots of noise around me made the task enjoyable. It wasn’t about rushing to do something because it had to get done, to check it off the list, and be able to return to my academic work.

At some point during my PhD journey I had gotten away from these things—being intentional about time with friends (not just rushing in and rushing out while always thinking about what you should be doing); the meditative nature of moving back and forth mowing the lawn; nourishing our bodies through grocery shopping and cooking; etc. I was somewhat aware of it and knew I needed to shift back. I was aware of it when I read Brigid Schulte’s book Overwhelmed. I was aware of it when all I wanted to do was travel, because when I travel, I stop and observe people and place rather than check e-mail and work.

Yet, it occurs to me that the academic culture is not generally about mindfulness. It is about busyness. You go full-speed-ahead for roughly 36 weeks a year, plus a lot of additional work trying to get ahead or catch-up the other 26 weeks. It is the e-mails of needing to get something completed immediately or at least in the next 48 hours. It is the knowing that there is always more work needing to be done or that could be done. It is also as graduate students, feeling that we do not have the power to say that something may need to wait. That poor planning on someone else’s part, should not equate an emergency on our part.

This week, as life was happening, I was very lucky in that those sort of e-mails stopped. In part, because of summer but also because of people’s travel schedules. The two or so that I did receive, I was able to say that I was not currently available, and not feel guilty about it. And I think some of our busyness is guilt. A need to feel useful all the time, which can also lead to guilt when we don’t live up to that. But taking the time to slow down, to process, and to be mindful about what we do, when, and why, can lead to more dynamic work, whether it is research, teaching, or working with our peers and colleagues. When we take the time to slow down, rather than frantically work on multiple things at once, we may become better colleagues and scholars.

P.S. As I had been contemplating all of this, the book, The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber arrived in the mail. It feels fortuitous in the timing. I look forward to reading it.

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