Sitting Down & Staying Still

The progressive breakdown of my computer and resulting residencies of IT guys have conspired to force me to read some of the books I have stacked on my desk.  Today, I read the copy of Teaching with Heart: Poetry that Speaks to the Courage to Teach (Intrator & Scribner, eds., 2014) we ordered for our library at the Center for Teaching.  The book is a collection of poems selected and prefaced by educators who were called to submit poems that were meaningful to their work lives.  A few stood out to me, but for today, I want to share a passage by Chuang Tzu (p. 155):

There was a man who was so disturbed by the sight of his own shadow and so displeased with his own footsteps that he determined to get rid of both. The method he hit upon was to run away from them.

So he got up and ran. But every time he put his foot down there was another step, while his shadow kept up with him without the slightest difficulty.

He attributed his failure to the fact that he was not running fast enough. So he ran faster and faster, without stopping, until he finally dropped dead.

He failed to realize that if he merely stepped into the shade, his shadow would vanish, and if he sat down and stayed still, there would be no more footsteps.

There’s much to analyze about this passage, but I offer it here as a summer reminder particularly for us educators. It’s mid-July, which means the summer is almost over (I’m so sorry to have acknowledged that!), so we hunker down into the home stretch of our summer work.  We still have research to do, classes to prepare, articles or books to write, projects to finish, etc.  I’ve checked a lot of big projects off my list so far, but I have others that remain.  They cause me to turn around and see my shadow. They cause me to be more alert to the sounds of my footsteps urging me on. They say to me,

I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.   (T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”)

But for now, for the next few weeks, let’s all agree to remember–at least a few times–to “step into the shade” and “sit down and stay still.”


For a practice to accompany this idea, I go back to one of my favorite and most-read posts: “Stories of the Slow Professor.”  It ends with a simple practice.  Stop, step into the shade, sit down, and try it.


Photo Credit: adropp via Compfight cc

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A Room of One’s Own

I have a new favorite place on campus.  It may not look like much–small room with a recliner and a lamp, a desk with a computer and handbook, a tv screen with assorted DVDs–but it’s a little oasis tucked into a corner room at 2015 Terrace Place. More comfortable than its name, the Mind Body Lab is available for Vanderbilt students for 45 minutes of stress relief, relaxation, and resilience.

I spent part of my morning there today for an extended session–doing research, of course, for this blog. I started at the desk with the User’s Guide, which briefly acknowledged the anxieties of the university experience and the importance of stress management and self-care. On the next page, the manual instructed me to sit comfortably in the recliner (above) with the room’s iPad in my lap and its sensor clipped to my earlobe. The Inner Balance app guided me me through 15 minutes of oh-so-comfortable breathing, a few good memories, and an eased heart rate. All of the thoughts of the morning [I-forgot-my-lunch, what-would-I-do-for-lunch? would-I-have-enough-time-today-to-write-this-blog-post? would-my-car-get-a-parking-ticket? oh-my-colleague-___-would-loooooove-this-experience-right-now!] settled somewhere on the floor, out of sight. At the end of 15 minutes, I wanted more, so I just kept going.

But there was more. A direct link to the Mind Body Lab page took me to a handful of guided relaxation techniques.  I did the one for public speaking anxieties and another for taking an exam.  These resources are available on the internet from anywhere, but I found myself noticing the luxury of having a private, comfy room dedicated completely to an intentional “pause” or “reset” button. I spend plenty of time out here in my life practicing mindful relaxation in a variety of ways, and 98% of the time there’s something else going on around me.  Not here. Not in this little room.

All day, the undulating rainbow slinky from the Inner Balance app has reminded me to slow down my breathing and focus on my heart. Aaahhhhh. And I didn’t get a ticket, I easily grabbed lunch on the way to the office, I’ve written this blog post and finished and submitted a revision of a manuscript and wrote an outline of a plan for an IRB submission and selected and announced the next book for our office book group, and I told my colleague about the experience. I went back to the MBL page and did the guided 7 minutes of Chair Yoga. Even though I had less time in my office today, I seem to have gotten more done, and I’m ready to go home, go for a run, and curl up with my current unguilty-pleasure-book.

Unfortunately, as part of the PCC (Vanderbilt’s Psychological Counseling Center), the Mind Body Lab is specifically for Vanderbilt students. Certainly, they need it. I’m going to proactively share it with my students, both undergraduate and graduate. I’m going to encourage my colleagues to share with their students. I’m already thinking of a way to integrate it into syllabi.

I’d like to know how we can get a Mind Body Lab for faculty and staff.  All we’d need is a tiny room, a chair, an iPad, and a computer. Imagine having a room like this here and there on campus. Those of you who are elsewhere, imagine having one on your campus.  Actually, let’s do more than imagine.  I’m going to do a little investigating.   Will report!


I like this 8-minute audio for a “4-7-8 Breath.”* It’s simple to do, and it begins with an explanation of the physiological effects of the practice.

*  I had to click “allow” on a pop-up window on several computers. Something about QuickTime.  But then it worked.

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Homing In

My post-semester sabbatical from blogging lasted a bit longer than I’d anticipated. Nothing bad happened: I simply devoted 100% of my writing efforts to a few manuscripts  I wanted to get off of my desktop.  There are more–there are always more–but I finished the third yesterday, so I feel caught up enough that I can return to other public writing activities.

For me, writing is an immersive activity, requiring my full attention. Whether I write for an hour or eight, I need to commit my entire cognitive load to the task. This time, however, I was surprised to find this familiar work significantly easier and more efficient.  In the past, I had to take time to psych myself up for producing polished, cohesive prose. I had to carve out an entire day and feel “just right” for the task. And afterwards, I was spent. This year, I simply sequestered myself in a coffeehouse (or created the coffeehouse environment in my office), took a few mindful breaths, and began. I quickly hit that sense of flow,* and the work came far more easily. I typically needed only a few hours at a time, rather than the full day.  When I finished, I turned to other tasks without feeling like I’d just helped a friend move.

As I write this draft, I noticed the tag cloud identifying the blog’s most frequent tags (topics) by font size. Attention” is a familiar benefit of a mindful practice. I now look forward to devoting this attention to this blog again, as well as other varied writing activities.


Each time I sat down to write, I started with the simplest practice of all, the one I posted in my second entry to The Mindful PhD called “The Easy Way & the Easier Way.”  Given the above, I think I’m going to put this blurb on my assignment sheets for my student essays.

“The creatively named Easy Way is to simply bring gentle and consistent attention to your breath for two minutes.  That’s it.  Start by becoming aware that you are breathing, and then pay attention to the process of breathing. Every time your attention wanders away, just bring it back very gently.” (Tan, 2012, p. 26)

Here’s a timer.  In “The Easy Way & The Easier Way” you did this for two minutes.  Now, set it for 4:00 or 5:00.  When you click “Start,” look down comfortably, or close your eyes. The timer will alert you at the end.

Remember, focus on your breathing. As your mind wanders, that’s okay.  Just notice “wandering,” and then return to your breath.  Wandering. Breath.

See you soon!

* Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi describes flow in the passage to the right (Elliot & Dweck, p. 600). I’ll pick up this topic in more depth in a later post.

Elliot, Andrew J., & Dweck, Carol S. (2007). Handbook of Competence and Motivation. New York : Guilford Press.
Tan, Chade-Meng. (2012). Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace). New York: Harper-Collins.
Photo Credit: maine-homeseller via Compfight cc
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Reading Here & Now

I’ve used the phrase “be here now” to describe what mindfulness looks like.  It’s bumper-sticker-ease for the practice of observing the present moment right in front of us, paying attention to the here and now rather than yesterday, tomorrow, or over there.  But a study that’ll soon be published in The Journal of Affective Disorders offers an important clarification of this notion by calling attention to how we “read” the here and now.

Desrosiers et al. note that focusing on the present moment may lead to rumination, worry, anxiety, and depression, so instructions like my “be here now” may, in fact, exacerbate some emotional problems rather than alleviate them.  They conducted a series of assessments of 189 people seeking help for anxiety and depression and concluded that the key was “non-reactivity”: the subjects who observed the “here and now” and then paused and non-judgmentally reassessed their emotions before reacting–rather than immediately and impulsively reacting, or just shutting down and blocking it out–had decreased rumination, worry, and depression.  They write,

observing present moment experience without immediate reactivity may help individuals avoid automatically engaging in unproductive styles of cognitive processing (i.e., ruminating or worrying) and instead respond to observations with more productive forms of elaboration (i.e., reappraising experience in the service of managing emotions).  (emphasis added; 15)

So it’s all about what we do with there here and now, how we read it, and what we do with that reading.

This emphasis on a specific process is fascinatingly similar to recent research clarifying the effects of reading literary fiction–which depends less on what is read and more on how it’s read.  English professor Natalie Phillips and some neuroscientists measured neural and physiological reactions of subjects reading Jane Austen, one group in a leisurely manner and the other practicing the close reading techniques of literary studies. The researchers were surprised at these early results, including blood flow and neurons firing in different regions of the brain, suggesting that “cognition is shaped not just by what we read, but how we read it” (Phillips qtd. in Goldman 1).  This research is still in progress, but last year’s widely reported findings by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano in Science single out active, participatory, and complex reading practices.  As their title indicates, this specific way of reading “Improves Theory of Mind,” or “the ability to detect and understand others’ emotions” and “the inference and representation of others’ emotions”–or empathy (377).

Ultimately, all of these studies simply remind me of the truth at the heart of my discipline of literary studies: how we read matters.


I found “The Art of Non-Reaction,” a blog post with a long list of metaphor-based strategies, but I’ll excerpt just a few here.  As you go about your life in the next week, call up a few of these at moments when you might otherwise react automatically:

Arguments are like tennis matches – if you don’t return the ball the game stops… Instead of hitting the tennis ball back you choose not to return the volley – let it pass you; let the game stop.

Imagine that you are an invisible dartboard – visualise darts passing through you. The darts (attacks, insults, arguments etc) don’t land; you are invisible.

Instead of crashing your car, you gently apply the brakes, stop, engage neutral and assess the situation. Ponder, then decide, then manoeuvre, logically and safely.

Passing the baton in a relay; don’t take it and the race stops.

When you cross a road, you stop; look, listen and you check both ways before proceeding. The art of non-reaction is exactly the same.

Desrosiers, Alethea, Vera Vine, Joshua Curtiss, & David H. Klemanski. “Observing Nonreactively: A Conditional Process Model Linking Mindfulness Facets, Cognitive Emotion Regulation Strategies, and Depression and Anxiety Symptoms.” Journal of Affective Disorders. (2014).
Goldman, Corrie. (2012). This is your brain on Jane Austen, and Stanford researchers are taking notes. Stanford Report.
Kidd, David Comer, and Emanuele Castano.  “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind.” Science 342 (2013): 377-380.
Phillips, Natalie, Samantha Holdsworth, Robert Dougherty, Franco Moretti, Heiko Schmeisdekamp, & Craig Heller. (2012).  Attention to fiction reading, an interdisciplinary fMRI experiment.  Wallenberg Foundation.

Photo Credit: Felipe Morin via Compfight cc and Bill David Brooks via Compfight cc

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In Case of Emergency

Before flying, we’re told to locate our nearest emergency exits.  If we’re sitting in the emergency row, we must verbally agree to the responsibility of working the  doors and helping our fellow passengers if necessary. Similarly, now that storm season has arrived in the South,* we’ve all prepared our “safe place,” the basement or an interior stocked with bottled water, flashlights, and a whistle. Families are making emergency plans: if the worst happens and we’re separated, we’ll meet at the elementary school.  In the current gun era, many of us have now gone through the preparations and training for active shooters on campuses.  And thanks to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), we even know what to do in case of a zombie apocalypse. We are prepared for worst-case scenarios.

But are we prepared for what’s most likely to happen, what regularly threatens our classrooms and the lives of those around us on campus? I’ve written about the stresses experienced by students a few times (here and here and here), and I’m sure to write about them again. I’ve written (here and here) about being empathetic enough to notice when something’s wrong and compassionate enough to reach out in appropriate ways. Psychologist Daniel Goleman, one of the leading names in emotional intelligence, notes that

This way of tuning in to another person does more than give us an understanding of their view—it tells us how best to communicate with that person: what matters most to them, their models of the world, and what even what words to use—or avoid—in talking with them. (“Empathy 101“)

This empathy also makes me realize that I haven’t yet fully prepared for these situations.  What about when the regular stresses turn into something the students can’t–and shouldn’t have to–handle by themselves? I’ve certainly encouraged students to connect with campus counseling services, but I’m not sure how helpful that is by itself or if it’s the best way to communicate with them.  What I don’t yet know about my campus’s counseling center:

    Vanderbilt's Psychology & Counseling Center/PCC (Street view from Google Maps)

  • Where is it located, exactly? (“Across from that parking lot at the crook of 21st” is too vague, and the address may be too impersonal for some. Is there a photo of the building/office on their website or in Google Maps’ street view?)
  • Who are they? (“Professionals.” But what are some names? Who are the key people the students will talk to?)
  • What specifically do they offer? (“Help,” “therapy,” and “support”–in what forms?)
  • How can they help the specific situation the student is experiencing (the death of a loved one, family crisis, violence, chronic illness, panic attacks, crippling anxiety dealing with the stresses of school, etc)?
  • What is the easiest way for a student to get in? (Is there an online method to arrange an appointment or ask questions? What specific phone number should they call? Can they just walk in?)
  • And what’s the most effective way to encourage a student to go there? (I know “Have you connected with the PCC?” isn’t it.)

At Vanderbilt, I know that it’s called the Psychology & Counseling Center (PCC), but I haven’t looked beyond their home page, and just yesterday a student showed me exactly where it is. I also completed the interactive online training for recognizing and referring students in distress, but it was some time ago, and I don’t remember the specific information as much as the individual cases it used for illustration.

Now that classes are over, I have no excuse.  After I submit my grades tomorrow,** I’m going visit the PCC to learn more–to answer the questions above, to become familiar with the physical space so I can talk about it with greater confidence, to learn the names of some key people there so it’s not simply a generic office, and to see what materials they have for me to give directly to students in the future. In case of emergency, when I see those red flags of students in distress, I want to be fully prepared. The first step is being empathetic enough to notice and compassionate enough to reach out.  But how?

Do you know the answers for your own campus?  If not, find out–again, in case of emergency.


This seems like an appropriate time to try “Just Like Me,” a meditative exercise in empathy. Click the video to the right for two minutes of guidance.

But keep in mind that while other people may be “just like” you, they may also have different needs.  As Goleman reminds us above, the goal is to find out “what matters most to them, their models of the world, and what even what words to use—or avoid—in talking with them.”

*  This has been a difficult week here in the South. Sending warm thoughts to those in the path of these storms.

** In these weeks of heavy grading, I’ve written less about the research on mindfulness because I haven’t been reading as much, but I’ll start again soon! Thanks for your patience with these less research-focused entries.

Goleman, Daniel.  “Empathy 101.” Daniel Goleman: Emotional Intelligence, Social Intelligence, Ecological Intelligence. 13 Oct. 2013.
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On Another Planet

Last year, Forbes declared university professor the Least Stressful Job of the Year (Adams).  The response was so strong that the writer issued a corrective Addendum, and the magazine published a variety of rebuttals explaining the stresses of this seemingly cushy job (c.f., Kroll, Willingham). In the wake of this controversy and resulting reality checks, faculty working conditions have changed dramatically. Reforms have swept across campuses, public awareness has shifted to elevate all educators above even the most beloved professional athletes, and politicians no longer describe them with scorn.* The 2014 Least Stressful Jobs list has just come out,** and university professor has again made the list–but this time, rightfully so.  It’s #4 on Forbes‘s list and #2 on CareerCast’s Best Jobs of 2014. We clearly have more work to do, but let’s celebrate the reforms of the last year that led to this well-deserved recognition.

Top 10 Campus Reforms that Made University Professor
One of the Least Stressful Jobs of the Year

(Really, This Time)

10. Promotion, tenure, publication, and pay are now based on clear, explicit criteria.

9.  The above criteria now allow for work-life balance, rather than rewarding or even requiring workaholism.

8. Institutions of higher education have shifted away from the cost-cutting and exploitative tendency to replace full-time faculty with temporary, part-time adjuncts.

7. Universities no longer operate under business models that prioritize the customer, the dollar, and the bottom line.

6.  Students frame their college experiences as learners curious about the world around them, particularly the worlds they’ve not yet known, rather than as customers seeking a grade and a job.

5. University committees have lost their bloat, and participation on the remaining committees is evenly distributed among all faculty.

4. Teaching is now valued as equally as valuable as research because everyone realized we not only have to cure cancer for future generations, we also have to help them become thoughtful, intelligent, compassionate citizens.

3. As a result of #4, teaching loads and class sizes at all institutions are now low enough for faculty to design effective, inclusive, challenging, and supportive learning environments for all students because these reforms have allowed faculty to take the time and energy to teach from their passions for their fields and for their students.

2. Campuses have designated regular times and places to support and encourage meditative practices by faculty, staff, and students, recognizing the overwhelming evidence of the psychological, physical, cognitive, and behavioral benefits.

1.  Faculty, staff, and students–also recognizing the evidence in #2 and making a conscious effort to improve mental and physical health, decrease stress, facilitate learning of all kinds, and act with empathy–have developed and started sharing regular mindful practices.


Although this list may sound as likely as little green men right now, some of it is within our reach. I’ll take us back to Tan’s “the Easy Way and the Easier Way” (p. 26), a great place to start with #1 above:

“The creatively named Easy Way is to simply bring gentle and consistent attention to your breath for two minutes.  That’s it. Start by becoming aware that you are breathing, and then pay attention to the process of breathing. Every time your attention wanders away, just bring it back very gently.

The Easier Way is, as its name may subtly suggest, even easier. All you have to do is sit without agenda for two minutes. Life really cannot get much simpler than that. The idea here is to shift from ‘doing’ to ‘being,’ whatever that means to you, for just two minutes.  Just be.”

Here’s a timer.  Set it for 2:05—to give yourself time to shift from clicking your mouse to the practice.  When you click “Start,” look down comfortably, or close your eyes. The timer will alert you at the end.

Now, be.

Repeat every day.

Now, what can we do to move toward #2?

* For example, remember when Wisconsin governor Scott Walker–who was just this week named Most Influential People by Time magazine–characterized the faculty of the University of Wisconsin System (and other public workers protesting his policies) as lazy, overpaid freeloaders?

** I wrote about these lists last year and mentioned then–as I will now–that yes, there are plenty of careers that are more stressful than ours, for a lot of reasons, but I’m most interested in how we experience stress, and we don’t experience it comparatively.  Knowing that someone else is more stressed than you doesn’t make you feel any less stressed.

Works Cited
Adams, Susan.  ” The Least Stressful Jobs of 2013.”  Forbes. 3 Jan. 2013. Web.
Kroll, David. “Top 10 Reasons Being A University Professor Is A Stressful Job.” Forbes. 5 Jan. 2013. Web.
Tan, Chade-Meng. Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace). New York: Harper-Collins, 2012. Print.
Willingham, Emily. “Do College Professors Have Less Stress?” Forbes. 6 Jan. 2013. Web.
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It’s About Our Students

Today is my last day of class, and I feel a little antsy, even a little edgy.  I already have a stack of materials to grade, and I’ll be getting another stack today, and then another during our final exam period.  I have deadlines related to other work activities.  And my spring-exploded yard is calling to me.  Thankfully, my mindfulness teacher training class is tonight, guaranteed to bring me back to here and now and aaaaaahhhhhh.  But enough, it’s not about me.  Really, enough about me.

I’ve written before about how mindful practice can increase our sense of compassion. In “Playing with Others,” I cited the 2013 study by Condon, Desbordes, Miller, and DeSteno in which participants in an 8-week mindfulness course and those on its waiting list were individually observed in a waiting room.  Two actors sat in the room with them, and a third arrived on crutches and clearly in pain.  The study participant, however, had just taken the last available seat. Those in the mindfulness course surrendered their seat to the person in pain 35% more frequently than those still on the waiting list. Condon and colleagues conclude that mindfulness resulted in more compassionate behavior.

Photo by Colleen Finlayson

Yesterday, my friend K (at another institution*) shared her sense of humility in thinking about her students:

I’ve never had to do homework out of my car because my parents kicked me out of my house and disowned me because the person I love happened to be of the same sex. I’ve never had to go home to three children and another part time job after school and stay up until 2am to get an assignment in on time. I’ve never been abused by my partner–physically or emotionally. I have never had been involved in an assault case, answering calls from police officers in between classes. I have never had any learning disorder. I’ve never had to sit in the same classroom with the man who raped me. I’ve never had to bring my children to class because I didn’t have parents to watch them and couldn’t afford childcare. And yet I see them thrive–able to conquer these obstacles–able to put all of it aside because they believe in education and take nothing for granted. So here is a shout out to all of those students who never had the privileges I had. To those who inspire me everyday with their strength, determination, and grace in the face of profound obstacles–living day to day just to get by. You make me better. You remind me of how truly blessed I am, and for that, I am forever grateful. Peace and love to you all.

K and I share some invisible, chronic health problems, which has led to conversations about mindfulness. (She’s also just a caring person.) I don’t know if she practices regularly, but I had to share her comment because it inspires the kind of compassion that’s most needed at this moment in the semester. I think about the situations of some of my current students, and I feel K’s humility and generosity for their strength and determination.

Yes, we‘re busy.  Yes, we do have a lot piling up on our desks and desktops. But the stakes are higher for the students, who are juggling major assignments multiple courses (five at a time at Vanderbilt) while trying to keep at bay the nagging worries about the future–while also experiencing sadness and depression and anxiety and trauma and and and….


Let’s go back to this simple practice that’s probably in great need at this time of the semester. For the next week, every time you interact with a student, immediately think the following:

“I wish this person happiness.”

That’s it.  Do it for a week.

* With her permission, I’ve eliminated her name and institution and modified comments slightly to ensure anonymity of all involved.

Condon, Paul, Gaëlle Desbordes, Willa B. Miller and David DeSteno. (Aug 2013). Meditation increases compassionate responses to sufferingPsychological Science. 1-3.
Photo Credit: Colleen Finlayson Compfight cc
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Looking into the Fire

In preparation for a talk next week, I was sitting on my floor next to my bookshelves, surrounded by open volumes of literature. (This is the literary scholar’s version of a kid surrounded by unwrapped presents.) I got sidetracked as I revisited one of my favorite passages in one of my favorite novels. It turns out that some of the literary moments that formed my understanding and appreciation of literature prefigure this blog.

Some of my most annotated (aka, loved) books: Moby-Dick, Hawthorne's Collected Stories, & Walden

In Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), Ishmael describes being on duty monitoring the pots of burning whale oil to fuel the Pequod. He becomes mesmerized by the fire, fearing the visions of “fiend shapes…capering half in smoke and half in fire,” which then “begat kindred visions in my soul” (354). He warns us, “Look not too long into the face of the fire, O man!” In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Ethan Brand” (1852), the titular character is a lime-burner who lived a “solitary and meditative life” monitoring the kiln fire, until one night he threw “his dark thoughts into the intense glow of its furnace, and melted them, as it were, into the one thought that took possession of his life” (422).  This moment is the beginning of his obsessive search for the Unpardonable Sin, which he ultimately finds in his own heart, not others’.

As these parallel scenes suggest, Hawthorne and Melville shared a legendary friendship that began around the time these two pieces were published. These are no minor scenes, though: they are significant passages within their bodies of work, pointing to their larger beliefs about both human nature and the world.*

Shortly after these two texts appeared, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854) offered a similar scene, but with a very different result. He describes fishing at night on his ponds:

“It was very queer, especially in dark nights, when your thoughts had wandered to vast and cosmogonal themes in other spheres, to feel this faint jerk, which came to interrupt your dreams and link you to Nature again. It seemed as if I might next cast my line upward into the air, as well as downward into this element, which was scarcely more dense. Thus I caught two fishes as it were with one hook.” (117)

Water and air, instead of fire. Visions of nature and the expansive self,** instead of “fiend shapes” and “dark thoughts.” But transcendent experiences while privately meditating on one of the elements.

I’ve always loved–loved–these passages, well before I knew anything about meditation or mindfulness.  I invoked them again and again in various papers I wrote in college and graduate school. And now they come back to me again, with another layer of significance. In the darkest times of my life, I resisted anything akin to meditation–or sitting quietly, allowing thoughts to come and go–for fear of what thoughts would come but not go.  At other times, like now, I understand Thoreau letting the line out and catching more than he expected.***

This week, my practice pays homage to these three passages.  I have many candles that I typically neglect, so I decided to look into and reclaim fire from Ishmael’s and Ethan Brand’s darkness.


If you have one, use a real life candle.  If you don’t have one nearby, click the video to the right. (Yes, it’s just a silent video of a candle burning. Oh, Youtube….)  Here’s some good guidance on “How to Do the Candle Meditation“:

“…simply stare at the candle and allow the image of the flame to occupy your mind. At first, your mind will probably wander about and your eyes will resist your efforts to keep them still. This is normal and it will gradually ease as the meditation progresses, so don’t be too concerned if this happens to you.

You may also find that you eyes water a little. Again, this is normal and it usually dissipates quite quickly. If distractions like these arise, simply return your attention to the candle flame and let them go.

A great way to deepen a candle meditation is to imagine that you are breathing the light of the candle in and out of yourself. You don’t need to perform a complex visualization exercise to do this, just keep your eyes fixed on the candle flame, and allow your natural breathing rhythm to fill your awareness.

Casually sense that the light of the candle is flowing into you as you breathe in and out.”

* Hawthorne and Melville were what we call Romantics, or more precisely Dark Romantics.

** Thoreau was a Transcendentalist, a more optimistic form of romanticism.

*** Let’s all try to use the word “cosmogonal” in conversation this week.  Why is it not more common?  Especially with Cosmos back on TV, it shouldn’t be too hard.

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Up in the Clouds

I’ve finally done it. I’ve missed my deadline for posting to The Mindful PhD for the first time. I was in Savannah, Georgia, all week for the SoTL (Scholarship of Teaching and Learning) Commons Conference connecting with dear colleagues and friends and meeting new ones. If I’d treated the conference like previous ones, I’d have enjoyed plenty of downtime in my hotel room, time for quiet, grading, writing, and such. However, once I got there, I decided to fully be there, applying what I’m learning through mindfulness to my conference experience.  As a result, my waking hours were filled with big talk and just a little small talk, walks beneath the Spanish moss and by the river, and sitting in the sunlight with old friends. Sure, I came home to plenty of grading and this missed deadline, but that’s okay.

On my trip down to Savannah, I looked out the window most of the time.  The clouds were beautiful: at one moment thick and puffy and granular, at the next flat and solitary and wispy. I’ve written before about the metaphor of the snow globe and how it works best for me, but a more common metaphor is clouds. Instead of imagining our thoughts like the snowflakes swirling around us and then settling, our thoughts are clouds–sometimes thunderheads, other times tiny wisps, but always coming and going, drifting into and (most importantly) out of our experiences.

Below is a practice based on this cloud metaphor. For a guided practice, click here (15 minutes).

“Sit comfortably where you will not be disturbed, your spine relaxed and upright. Close your eyes and take a few moments to tune inside.

Simply notice any activity arising in your mind – it could be thoughts or memories, distractions or daydreams. Observe without judging this procession of thoughts, images, or memories going through your mind. There is nothing you need to do with these thoughts except bring your attention to them; except watch them. If emotions or physical sensations arise, acknowledge them, let them be, and bring your attention gently back to witnessing the mental flow.

Think of the mental flow as being like clouds in the sky: just passing through your mind like the clouds pass across the sky. As the big blue of the sky is always there behind the clouds; notice how the part of you that is able just to watch your thoughts is always there behind the mental impressions.” (Watch Your Thoughts Like Clouds in the Sky)


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Revisiting Boice

I’ve been preparing a one-week summer workshop in humanities pedagogy for a few post-docs starting their positions this fall.  My partner in this development is one of our Graduate Teaching Fellows, Jessica Riviere, who just dotted her i’s and crossed her t’s for graduating (or “walking”) in May. The confluence of these events brings me back to the early days of my career and what was most helpful in navigating my new role as a faculty member.

Immediately, Robert Boice’s Advice for New Faculty Members: Nihil Nimus (2000)came to mind. It was published two years after I actually began as assistant professor, but I was an early adopter of the now-classic guidebook. I hadn’t revisited it in years–until this last week’s thinking about these new post-docs and Jessica’s transition.  I had forgotten that the book is divided into three sections that are all grounded in mindfulness–and one explicitly so:

  • “Moderate Work at Teaching”
  • “Write in Mindful Ways”
  • “Socialize and Serve with Compassion”

His detailed table of contents gives an effective overview of what each section looks like.  He encourages a “nihil nimus” (nothing in excess) approach to the three components of faculty work, but significantly he starts with teaching:

“In my 20 years of observation, far and away the most suffering for new faculty occurred in relation to classroom teaching. Nothing else, not even writing for publication or coming to campus with few social supports, consumed nearly so much time and well-being. No other demand so effectively supplanted social life and professional productivity. And nothing else was so likely to get novices thinking about abandoning academic careers.” (12)

Despite this sobering beginning, the book outlines clear, simple rules* for balanced approaches to all aspects of our work:

  1. Wait.
  2. Begin early.
  3. Work in brief, regular sessions.
  4. Stop.
  5. Balance preliminaries with formal work.
  6. Moderate overattachment and overreaction
  7. Moderate negative thoughts.
  8. Moderate emotions.
  9. Let others do some of the work.
  10. Limit wasted effort.

In the middle section, he explicitly connects his advice about “exemplary styles of working” to mindfulness (112):

Seven Simple Practices of Mindfulness

  • Awakeness and staying in the moment
  • Clear seeing of what needs doing and can be done
  • Calm efficiency in doing it, including timeliness
  • Freedom from destructive emotions
  • Connectedness and compassion with self and others
  • Letting go
  • Gentle self-discipline

I have to chuckle, right before I quietly thank Boice, because our work seems to be marked by more binges than balance: over-preparing for teaching, “binge-writing” (we’re clearly aware of this unhealthy approach, but we embrace the term with pride), and serving on too many committees.  Even this summer workshop we’re planning is being described as “boot camp” or a “crash course” because Jessica and I are condensing what we’re designing as a year-long curriculum for everyone else into one week for the post-docs who are starting their positions in August.  All the more reason to introduce Boice’s ideas to them.

So, despite–or perhaps because of–the exigencies of our lived experiences at work, it’s helpful to periodically revisit Boice’s advice and pull back. I’m going to set myself a periodic reminder in my e-calendar. I’m calling it “Nihil Nimus: Advice for Old Faculty Members.”


This week, let’s try one of Boice’s explanations for his first rule:  wait.  In this paragraph, he applies it to our teaching preparations, but you can also think of it as the first rule in preparing for writing, attending a meeting, or having a conversation.

“Exercise 1. Pause Before Writing or Talking, to Reflect. That is, WAIT! Actually pause for a moment, perhaps as long as two seconds. Be prepared to hold yourself back if you feel an urge to do something else more immediately comforting (e.g., ‘First I’ll make that phone call, and then I’ll settle down to this’). Then, use these brief pauses of slowing and calming to sketch ideas, diagrams–even to jot down a quote. As thoughts appear, even vaguely, talk them over with yourself. If you cannot think of anything, freewrite what you guess you might think, by writing whatever comes to mind and without stopping to correct or edit. Whatever else, write it down, at least in some kind of shorthand or diagram. And then imagine talking it aloud to your students and how they will react/interact. All this, believe it or not, can be done in a few minutes” (23).

In the next week, as you start to prepare for something, experiment with this practice.  See if it brings a different timbre to your work, and let me know how it goes.

* Okay, the recommendations are simple; the execution is more complicated.

Boice, Robert. Advice for New Faculty Members: Nihil Nimus. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000.
Photo Credit: CoastRanger via Compfight cc
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