Mindful academia

I wrote this post with Steven Stanley back in 2012

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.

Mindful self-care

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.

Mindful change

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.

For example, given that we know that selves are not separate or operating in isolation but that they emerge in interaction, why do we buy into the notion that individual academics can be ‘excellent’ or the related valuing of ‘single’ authorship? Why do we tell the stories of our lives and careers, in appraisals and applications, as if they were the outcome of deliberate planning and choice (Rose,1990) when we know how questionable this is? Why are we expected to perform in consistent ways when we recognise that we are in process and changing all the time? Does this new theory we are drawing on really have a valuable contribution, or is it just another way of impressing our colleagues, getting published, and/or keeping up with the current fashion? Does the amount of work we have produced, or the impact of the journals it appears in, equate to its value? Does our review, or our question following a presentation, come from open curiosity and a desire to connect, or from an urge to prove ourselves or to rid ourselves of painful feelings? Can we question the taken-for-granted assumption of being ‘productive’ irrespective of the consequences?

The notion of grasping is helpful here. We can grasp the identity of ‘academic’ or ‘social scientist’ and attempt to constantly shore up this identity. Alternatively, we can refuse it completely, hurling it away from ourselves and situating ourselves as ‘outsiders’. A further possibility, or middle way, is to creatively engage with what it means to be an academic or social scientist: to tune into the experience, to imagine ways it could be done differently, and to encourage others into dialogue with us. This can be done collectively as well as individually through group mindfulness practice.

Mindful engagement with others
Much of our work as academics involves interaction with other people, whether that be through reading other’s work, through writing for an audience, or through face-to-face or online contact with colleagues, students and participants. Given that mindfulness is a way of being in relation to our whole lives (Hanh, 1976), rather than just a specific technique to be practised through meditation, what does it mean to read, to write, or to engage in research in a mindful way?

We are often struck by the clarity, peace, and aliveness of the writing we read from Buddhist scholars and practitioners such Stephen and Martine Batchelor and Thich Nhat Hanh, which has often been written in retreat contexts. Mindful writing involves listening with awareness to both ourselves and to our potential readers.

Instead of focusing on number of words written, or references cited, or becoming bogged down in terminology, we might focus on the questions of what we want to communicate, and where our readers are likely to be coming from. We might also write in a way that is gentle with ourselves, not worrying that whatever we say will be ‘set in stone’ or predicting negative criticisms (which there will always be anyway as we cannot please everybody, Barker, 2011). We might use mindfulness writing practices to get us started, such as those suggested by Goldberg (1998), including getting our hand moving across the page/keyboard. We might also learn when to step away from the work and just breathe or feel our bodies sitting. While we may not have the fortune yet of attending retreats for academics, we can momentarily reproduce a retreat setting in our offices or homes, by momentarily being aware and taking care of ourselves and others.

Richards (2011) has recently written about the idea that readers, as well as writers, need to consider the ways in which they approach the material. In the social sciences we are familiar with the concept of the reflexive researcher who considers what they bring to their studies and how this affects the questions they ask, the data they collect, the conclusions they draw, and so on (Finlay & Gough, 2003). Richards argues for a similar reflexivity on the part of the reader. Mindful reading is a similar concept to this. We might think about the situation in which we are reading (rushed right before a discussion of the paper, or in a luxurious bath?), what we bring to the reading (professional expertise, specific knowledges, a chip on our shoulder?), what we are hoping and expecting from it (to check it off our to do list or to make a new connection?). We would attempt to be present and open to the reading (or to do it another time if that is not where we are at). We might communicate with the author/s after reading to continue the communication.

If we are reading in order to write a review of some kind then, going back to Gill’s (2010) concerns, we will be mindful of the full and complex human being behind the writing, remembering that their writing does not capture all that they are or all that they can be. We will consider how our words may be received. We may question the anonymity of review processes in order to aid humanising ourselves, and the writer, and to invite them into a more ongoing process.

As with reading the work of others, mindful practices may aid reflexivity when it comes to engaging with the people who participate in our research. Much has been written on this topic, but it seldom outlines how reflexivity might actually be done: what practices we might employ. Perhaps meditative sitting or journal writing could be a means to reflect on what we bring to our research. Also, we find that mindful practice is useful just prior to engaging with participants, as it enables us to be more present to the interaction, to really listen to what is being said, and to be aware of what we bring to the encounter, rather than trying to ignore this in a way that means that it haunts the interaction (Ahmed, 2010).

When we write about our participants’ accounts, engaging mindfully will alert us to the dangers of fixing them as static or singular. Heckert (2011) warns against the very real risk of doing violence to participants when we present just one unified understanding of them (see Barker, Bowes-Catton & Richards, forthcoming 2012 for an examination of specific examples of this). We need to remember that claiming the authority to speak for another person can violate their capacity to speak for themselves and to tell their own stories. ‘Practices of telling people who they are and what they want erect a barrier between them and who (or what) they can create themselves to be’ (May, 1994, p.131). From a mindfulness perspective can we find ways of telling multiple stories, or of capturing the shifts in accounts over time (rather than focusing on ‘inconsistencies’ or ‘contradictions’)?

Engaging in social mindfulness, both individually (for example in meditation and journaling) and collectively (in our conversations with others, meetings, and written work), could be one way to address the injuries of academic life and to intervene in their perpetuation. This has resonances with recent work by Debbie Epstein and Rebecca Boden and Mark Carrigan which question the taken-for-granted ways in which academia operates. We welcome further debate on these issues.


  • Ahmed, S. (2010). Secrets and silences in feminist research. In R. Ryan-Flood & R. Gill (Eds.) Secrecy and silence in the research process. pp.xvi-xxi. London: Routledge.
  • Barker, M. (2011). Writing for publication for counsellors and therapists, Part 1. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 26 (1), 96 -102.
  • Barker, M., Richards, C. & Bowes-Catton, H. (forthcoming 2012). Visualising experience: Using creative research methods with members of sexual communities. In C. Phellas (Ed.) Researching Non-Heterosexual Sexualities.Farnham: Ashgate.
  • Batchelor, S. (1997). Buddhism without beliefs. London: Bloomsbury.
  • Finlay, L & Gough, B. (2003). Reflexivity: A practical guide for researchers in health and social sciences. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Gill, R. (2010). Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of the neoliberal university. In R. Ryan-Flood & R. Gill (Eds.) Secrecy and silence in the research process. pp.228-244. London: Routledge.
  • Goldberg, N. (1998). Writing down the bones. Boston, MA: Shambhala.
    Hanh, T. N. (1976, 1991). The miracle of mindfulness. London: Random House.
  • Heckert, J. (2011). Sexuality as State-form. In D. Rousselle and S. Evren (Eds.) Post-anarchism: A reader. Ann Arbor/London: Pluto Press.
  • May, T. (1994). The political philosophy of poststructuralist anarchism.University Park, PN: Pennsylvania State University Press.
  • Richards, C. (2011). Are you sitting comfortably? The Psychologist, 24 (12), 904-906.
  • Rose, N. (1990). Governing the soul: The shaping of the private self. London: Routledge.

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).