Sitting lets us just, first of all, recognize that we are this massive collection of thoughts and experiences and sensations that are moving at the speed of light and that we never get a chance to just be still and pause and look at them, just for what they are, and then slowly to sort out our own voice from the rest of the thoughts, emotions, the interpretations, the habits, the momentums that are just trying to overwhelm us at any given moment.

angel Kyodo williams,  The world is our field of practice

1.

A story about momentum.

We’re at the mall, balancing small girls and a stroller on the metal steps of the escalator, everyone near us also in that kind of glazed state that escalators bring on: if you’re not going to insist on climbing, then you’re being carried along, sagging slightly.

When the escalator stopped, maybe twenty of us stood there, momentarily not sure what had happened, or what we should do about it. In the mall, surrounded by shoppers surging past, we were suddenly the only people standing still, like a flash mob, like a disturbance in the whole physics of the thing. Near the bottom, I held my girl’s hand tighter while we waited for the people at the top to realise that they had to start walking so the rest of us could escape from the spectacle of being stuck.

And then it occurred to me, looking down at her, what she had done. Small and curious, she had reached out and pressed the red button that was just there.

She was the one who had put a stop to it all.

2.

Working in higher education, I’ve learned to notice a kind of unease that shows up at odd times — in meetings, in hallway conversations, at the sight of the subject line of an email. It’s the dream-like sense that I’m not moving fast enough, I’m not getting on with it, and sooner or later I’m going to have to explain myself. 

I’m not alone in this. We all feel the breath of audit culture on our necks. But we’re not standing still. We’re like a crowd that’s been startled into running because everyone else is running. And while this momentum might be stimulating for some, and rewarding for the very few who are out the front, it’s not sustainable for any of us. Humans aren’t built to run indefinitely; even a marathon is over in hours, and the winners are doubled over and holding their sides at the end. We pursue a career for most of our lives, and this is exactly how it feels, to be in the unending hunt for something that is also hunting us. And the normalisation of anxiety and overwork that goes along with this seems like the last throw of a failing system of work that can barely manage its own running adjustment to scarcity.

But we can still see how things could be done more carefully and compassionately, how human needs could be met well, how authentic innovation could emerge. We can visualise change because this is precisely what we’ve been trained and recruited to do, and because universities were set up for this task. Because we don’t specialise in one thing, like an industry or a corporation might, universities were incubators for innovation before it was disruptive. We were campuses before Apple or Intel re-coined the term. Universities are where engineers and philosophers can meet, where geographers set up projects with public health researchers, and where students who want international careers in finance can also learn Mandarin and study psychology.

This disciplinary thrown-togetherness is also what makes university committee processes engaging, even if the project itself is paint-dryingly dull. If you’re trying to figure out a quality assurance process with a physicist and a historian and a nurse educator, you’re going to get a better result because the experience they bring is different—not just their university experience, but the insights they bring from different professional networks.

But under conditions of austerity the potential for creative collaboration is choked. When budgets are cut on the assumption that this will generate a hunger for efficiency, what actually happens is that risk appetite shrinks to fit. Unless the deliverables directly address the strategic priorities, the creative idea is a distraction, a drag on efficiency. Meanwhile the thing that everyone agrees must happen has to find someone prepared to take it on, and under these survivalist conditions of tactical learned helplessness, the same people look at each other and shrug, and add it to the list.

In this culture, efficiency impersonates investment, and we intensify our focus on momentum itself: performance becomes a kind of pseudo-product, process-mapped, managed, starved of resources, and shamed. We don’t allow ourselves the safety to move slowly, to reflect, to steady ourselves, to question. We’re all running and we’re not getting anywhere because it turns out that thanks to shrinking budgets and intensifying marketisation we’re now running up the down escalator, and all of our momentums are focused on not falling behind.

These are the conditions under which universities are trying to meet public expectations of innovation, graduate employability, and student satisfaction. These are the circumstances in which people who work in universities are trying to live according to their hopes and values, to use their skills well, and to care for each other.

3.

In August 2017,  Reverend angel Kyodo williams spoke with Sharon Salzberg at the Jewish Community Centre in Manhattan about the complex intersections between activism and spirituality in difficult times. Whether we’re thinking about climate, or our workplaces, or the sufficiency of our health and welfare systems, the challenge for structural activists is whether and how the privileged will step beyond routines of spiritual self-care to engage in a struggle that is not directly relevant to their needs. What are the prospects for collective agency under capitalism when the people who most need to act are those with most to lose? How bad do things have to get for the most powerful to realise that they must also participate?

In this conversation, Sharon Salzberg shared something she learned from radical activist and educator Myles Horton, who collaborated with Paulo Freire on We Make the Road by Walking, which I’ve written about here and here.

I asked him what he did to develop resilience or get a break from the pressure and stress of his work. He said, “I look at the mountains. I just sit and look at the mountains.”

I get this. It is tempting to think of sitting in this way, as a respite, as a break from pressure and stress. In fact, this is more or less what universities are up to in recommending exercise, meditation, mindfulness, walking more, standing at your desk, and all the wellbeing this and that—although they’re strangely silent on not working evenings and weekends. Taking a break isn’t meant to be permanent, it’s a tactic to recuperate and resume momentum.

But I’m thinking about my daughter, all those years ago, and I’m wondering whether we have given up on that style of curious action. Isn’t curiosity itself an invitation to the radical imagination: to enter the space of what if?  What if we pressed the button? What if instead of treating sitting as a practice of contemplative retreat from which we return in better and more competitive shape, we are willing to challenge the pace, nature and end-goal of competitive efficiency itself? What if we open ourselves up to the possibility that vulnerability is a form of agency, a decision, a gift?

What if we can imagine a more radical transformation of the culture in which we work?

Reading that lies behind this

Rev. angel Kyodo williams in conversation with Krista Tippett, “The word is our field of practice,” On Being, April 2018

Sharon Salzburg with Rev. angel Kyodo williams, “Love everyone: a guide for spiritual activists“, Lion’s Roar, August 2017

Cat, “Trading Favours“, Not Spelt with a K, April 2018

11 Responses

  • Thanks Kate, as ever!
    In a way that isn’t obvious, I have pressed a button. And what do I learn from this? It’s the start not the end of something. I have taken a break and returned to the situation. I have been able to make another new beginning. I don’t know what will happen but I do have a plan. And in acknowledging my own vulnerability, I am able to imagine a new, painful, risky future. Wish me luck!

    Reply
    • Kate Bowles

      Hi Frances,

      Since writing this and talking to people, I’ve come to think that for most of us the first red button is a small and subtle one. It’s the moment where curiosity converts to agency, and sometimes it’s an interior gesture, a different habit of thinking. So I realised reading your comment that I have also done this recently in a way that isn’t obvious, but has been really helpful to me.

      Reply
    • Kate Bowles

      Also, most obviously, good luck!

      Reply
  • Alisa

    Thank you Kate.

    Your thoughts here are so timely for me. I was recently in a conversation with a university manager who seemed to be suggesting that a person who was seen to be working harder and faster than everyone else was also assumed to be more passionate about their work. My immediate reaction was to feel like I wasn’t doing enough. But then I remembered that ‘that’ person also didn’t have children, so his evenings and weekends were probably not occupied in the same way mine are. That aside, I was mostly concerned that in that moment, whether intentionally or not, I took it on board that ‘hard and fast’ is ultimately what is valued and what I should be seen to be doing. From experience, however, I equate hard and fast with shiny and shallow, quite often sloppy, and sometimes even just blatantly reckless.

    So on reflection, it has made me want to actively pursue, even demand, a counter-narrative – one that recognises that there is passion and value in taking a thoughtful, careful, judicious, rhythmic, dignified, and deliberate approach to work. And I like the idea of framing this in terms of a ‘measured’ approach – as a way of speaking back to the audit culture of universities that emphasises the measurement of efficiency as it quietly stretches the boundaries of what is appropriately efficient.

    If we want to measure anything, perhaps it should be the level of care the University allows us to take with ourselves, with each other and with our students.

    Reply
    • Kate Bowles

      A, it is so good to see you here. And yes, I think you have a practical suggestion that we need to sit with: what if we had other measures?

      This is something I want to dwell on a bit. There is no particularly good reason for us to measure productivity in the way that we do. We could just as easily measure the health or sustainability of our educational organisations, and think of them more like rivers. The health of a river is that it keeps flowing, and that its natural balance can be self-renewing. So it is a negative measure if too much water is taken out, and not enough restorative care put back.

      On this measure, universities would be seen in quite a different line-up. And I think this is the “what if” that the red button moment can represent for us: what if we measured differently?

      Reply
  • I might easily guess which daughter pressed that button. But I might easily be wrong.

    What a powerful metaphor, yet in the spaces you provide, the systems are not built or designed with red buttons, we have to make them ourselves.

    I could not help remembering my own childhood morbid fear of escalators, in the blue tinted glass interior of one of the first indoor shopping malls in America, Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore.

    Towards the top, the bottom, I’d watch the way the stairs I stood on collapsed and slide under the lip of the metal shelf, and could not imagine where it went (I was maybe 4). It seemed mysterious and curious at once. And what would happen if I did not pay attention, if my stray shoe lace slipped under? Would I fold like the stairs and slide under? I learned to watch and leap off the belt.

    At airports and buildings I tend to void the escalators and moving sidewalks at all times, usually sense that I’m better off providing my own locomotion and questioning the need of mechanized convenience to do something our bodies are capable of (and designed for). Still, when there is no option, I carefully eye that place the world slips under the metal plate.

    This especially resonates after an experience in the U.K. when a flare up of a health problem pressed a red button, and the vision in my left eye stopped. And I found the value, comfort, yes love of friends with me who took care and saw that I got off the belt safely.

    We ought to catch up soon! I miss the latest Thirroul stories 😉

    Reply
    • Kate Bowles

      You guessed right. I think we all knew it was her 😉

      To me the red button is one that it always just there, in our reach. But mostly we lack the confidence to press it, or we wait until fate presses it for us.

      When I was diagnosed with cancer and given permission to step away from work for a year, no matter what happened in treatment I kept realising with a kind of shock that I was living a better life, focusing calmly on one thing at a time. This has gone on being a revelation to me.

      I was just like you as a child on escalators: I was quite alarmed by them.

      Reply
  • And good luck to you! We have just come back from a visit to our almost 4 month old grandson and his parents. I was fascinated to watch him roll over then get his arm stuck under his chest. Even more fascinating was watching his parents watching him struggle only intervening when his struggle finally turned to frustration. He is a lucky boy! I wish him educators as good as his parents.

    Reply
  • Katie Freund

    This really resonated with me at this moment as I am feeling the ever-increasing workload starting to overwhelm, and am losing my ability to do anything thoughtfully and well as a result. I think many of us get stuck where once we start saying yes instead of no, that level of work becomes the expected norm. Just as you say, marathons should eventually end, and not become normal. Looking for how I can hit the red button!! Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
    • Kate Bowles

      Katie! So lovely to see your name here.

      You bring up something so important: that we are so often tricked into generating momentum that we can’t sustain when we say yes to things. I really feel this, and I think we do have to say that there are gender issues here, although it’s not exclusively a problem for women.

      This is something that can’t be solved by asking people just to become more assertive. The business model that relies on gifted labour needs to be examined and explained carefully as an unsustainable business risk.

      Holding systems to account is difficult, and itself a kind of marathon. But there are gains as well as losses.

      Reply
  • Wendy M

    To sit and look at the mountain, to breath in and breath out, these are the states of rest where creativity happens, where paradigms shift. I am thinking about the responsibility that Reverend angel Kyodo williams talks of. I am thinking about the learned helplessness mentioned by Cat. I am thinking about endless cups of tea with amazing people.

    The momentum in the current river of higher education as it is led by managers is gripped with fear. Fear of disruption, fear of slowing down, fear of not keeping up and winning the race.

    Kate, you have reminded me once more that higher education is itself its own ancient river that will make its own path around the rocks and move on. It is a collective of people passionate about knowledge and learning. The busyness that is a univeristy today is just that. Beyond the productivity narrative based on outputs and measurments our collective reponsibility is to stop and look at the mountain, to press the red button (turn the email off). The way forward is already there.

    Reply

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