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
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.
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.
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