Each year during the summer months I have a practice of going on a silent retreat. When I tell people that I am heading away to sit and do nothing for 7 days as part of my annual leave – no writing, no reading, no talking – I get some wry looks indeed. But I also get some interested looks, and indeed some looks that I interpret as envious. It seems that the endless hurry that characterizes many people’s lives, the constant demand of work, social media, the on-duty and high alert nature of the social world, can wear out our resources without our full knowledge or consent.
Not that a retreat is an easy thing to do. For my part I experience the removal of stimulation and demand as a challenge for sure. There is a true sense of disorientation when you don’t have phone, e mails, internet, constant distraction, or indeed the affirmation that often comes from work. Who am I if I don’t have those things in my psychic space?
But, despite, or perhaps because of, the challenge, I keep going back. It seems to me that the single most important resource that I draw on in my work as an adult educator, the thing that sustains me in my pedagogical life as well as my psychological life, is the practice I have had for over three decades of taking time each day to sit and to be, to allow for a short time the world to be the world and me to be me. In this space I detach from constant doing and come in to the realm of being. Doing this every day, supported by my annual retreat, together with a like-minded community of practitioners, seems to have the impact of refreshing, renewing and resourcing the core part of me that I draw on in my pedagogical life.
I work in the Department of Adult and Community Education in Maynooth University in the contexts of both adult education and adult guidance counselling. I see these as rewarding and demanding vocational choices. We work to animate change in individual lives and in the wider society, enacting and embodying a commitment to values of equality and justice. In our work lives we find ourselves in the midst of group participants’ challenging experiences and stories, and we extend our hearts and minds to support the people we work with, often at a cost to ourselves that our institutions don’t recognize, reward or support. There is a sense in which self-care can seem like another demand on our time and energy, another task on top of the stresses of our work, another.
Mindfulness practice offers me something important that resources me in the face of the requirements of the neo-liberal world: it offers a set of formal and informal practices that can teach me how to ground myself in the present moment with curiosity and openness and to relate to myself and to my own experience with kindness and compassion (Kabat-Zinn 2005, 2013). This can nurture a freedom to be with whatever is, in a way that offers supports in the midst of the challenges and demands of daily living. Mindful practice can support us to be present to ourselves at one and the same time that we are present to others, and to the myriad demands on our time, attention and care throughout our days.
It also offers something in addition, a philosophy of living that is congruent with my values as an adult educator. Though mindfulness has been correctly critiqued for its susceptibility to neo liberal discourse, at its best it brings with it a radical critique of power, greed and narcissism. It emphasizes holistic connection: between body, mind and emotion, between self and other, between the human community and the environment we are embedded in, and on which we depend for well-being (Kabat-Zinn, 2005, 2018; Bristow et al 2022). There is nothing like a retreat from the daily compulsive consumption – of news, of goods, of resources – to alert you to the core difference between what is needed and nourishing, and what is compulsively consumed at the expense of well-being.
As another academic year begins, I have a practice of asking myself a core question that I take from Joanna Macy’s work on hope: what would I most like to do to contribute to healing our world? Or as the subtitle of her book asks: how do I face the mess without going crazy (Macy & Johnstone, 2012)? A retreat is a good place to address this challenge and the answer emerges easily: I will continue to resource myself with a daily mindfulness practice, strengthen my learning about the contemplative origins of mindfulness and continue to teach the practices I have learned to others.
David is hosting a CPD opportunity over 8 weeks on Zoom for adult educators and adult guidance counsellors who would like to learn about Mindfulness and develop their own contemplative practice. If you would like to further details, please see flyer at the end of this blog post, or contact: Ann Smith at Ann.firstname.lastname@example.org
Bristow, J., Bell, R., Wamsler, C. (2022). Reconnection: Meeting the Climate Crisis Inside Out. Research and policy report. The Mindfulness Initiative and LUCSUS. www.themindfulnessinitiative.org/reconnection
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2005). Coming to our senses: Healing ourselves and the World through mindfulness. Piatkus.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full catastrophe living, revised edition: How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation (Revised ed.). Piatkus.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2018) The Healing Power of Mindfulness: A New Way of Being. Hachette.
Macy, J. and Johnstone, C. (2012) Active Hope: How to face the mess without going crazy. New World Library.