Our guest author this week is Dr Michelle Jamieson – a Higher Degree Research Learning Advisor at Macquarie University, Australia, with a special interest in the role experience plays in doing research. As a mindfulness practitioner and medical sociologist, her work explores how mindfulness can help students to develop balanced work practices, healthy ways of relating to themselves and greater joy in the research process. She is the author of the blog www.themindfulresearcher.com.
Over the past few years, I’ve noticed that no matter what teaching setting I’m in, discussions of the technical aspects of thesis writing often quickly turn into conversations about experience. Whenever students are given space to reflect on their work or ask for help, they’re keen to share their own (and hear about others’) experiences of the research process. This can be in the most obvious sense of raising issues such as confidence, motivation, transitioning from work to study, difficulties in the supervision relationship or the discomfort of receiving critical feedback. And it can also take subtler forms. For instance, when I ask students about their work (‘How can I help you with this piece of writing? What are your concerns about the draft?’), their responses draw heavily on the language of experience, as they describe feelings of resistance, frustration, flow, enthusiasm, weariness, boredom, steadiness, anxiety, etc.
Experience plays a fundamental role in how research students navigate the different and overlapping challenges of thesis writing. These challenges can be technical, such as how to structure an argument; intellectual, such as interpreting complex texts; practical, such as recruiting study participants; and personal, which may include any disruption that life throws at us, whether welcome or unwelcome. Crucially, each of these challenges has an important experiential dimension.
Consider a common issue such as writer’s block. The many forms this obstacle takes suggest that writing is not simply a technical skill that is learnt and then applied. It is also a behaviour or lived activity. When faced with a problem like writer’s block, technical proficiency alone doesn’t ensure that the obstacle will be overcome. Rather, the way a writer works through a block depends largely on how he or she negotiates feelings of being stuck, frustrated or failing, and habitual urges to give up, engage in distractions or push oneself.
For instance, the discomfort of being blocked prompts some people to react by pushing themselves to work despite little progress (an approach typical of high achievers). As an automatic reaction, pushing or forcing describes a resistant, non-accepting relation to discomfort. The experience of not being in control of the direction or pace of one’s writing can be frightening, and the reaction of attempting to aggressively master one’s work can be tinged with frustration and anger. At the other end of the spectrum, the same feelings of fear, restlessness and lack of control can trigger the opposite response of avoidance and withdrawal. Unable to sit with the draft and the feelings it animates, we distract ourselves in whatever way is our style (e.g., checking social media, chatting to a neighbour), often without realising what we’re doing.
Being aware of one’s felt experience throughout the candidature is thus key to weathering the daily ups and downs of thesis writing with intelligence and care. Ultimately, this ability to attend and listen to what is happening, here and now, determines whether the actions we take are thoughtful and genuinely responsive to the needs of each situation (mindful) or reactive and automatic (habitual).
In response to these observations, I created a resource focused on the experience of doing research. I wanted to show students that not only does their experience matter, but that there are skilful means of working with it. Since 2018, I’ve been teaching The Mindful Researcher, a four-week course that integrates mindfulness principles and practices into research and writing practice. The course aims to teach students:
- To distinguish between experience (awareness) and thought (analysis)
- To cultivate awareness of felt experiences through various contemplative practices (e.g., sitting meditation, body scanning)
- To recognise the unique experiential challenges they face and their habitual reactions to them (e.g., time pressure and procrastination)
- To practice strategies of mindful attention when these challenging experiences and reactions arise
- To cultivate healthy, balanced and sustainable work habits for life.
Why mindfulness? Mindfulness – or more simply, awareness – is the capacity to clearly observe what is happening, here and now, without judgement or reactivity. The term describes the quality of mind of being present to, and aware of, our experience as it occurs. When engaged in mindful activity, the mind is focused on one thing and we’re conscious of how we’re paying attention (Hassed 2016, 52). This state is the opposite of habit, where the mind switches into ‘default mode’ and our thoughts and actions happen automatically or involuntarily. Default mode gets activated when we aren’t consciously concentrating on one thing. This state is associated with ‘inattention, judgment, criticism, mind-wandering and doing things on autopilot rather than experiencing things as they actually are’ (Hassed and Chambers 2014, 22). Too much default activity ‘impairs our ability to appraise accurately, think clearly, concentrate and learn’ (2014, 22) and, at its extreme, contributes to a range of serious mental health issues.
Physiologically, the practice of mindfulness switches off default mode and activates the prefrontal cortex – the area of the brain responsible for executive functions like ‘planning, reasoning, problem solving, focusing and directing attention, short term (working) memory, mental flexibility, managing emotions…controlling intentional behaviour and inhibiting unwanted behaviours’ (Hassed and Chambers 2014, 24). Practising mindfulness resources us to respond to stressful or challenging conditions from a place of reason and clear-sightedness rather than fear and emotional reactivity.
To put these benefits into context, let’s return to the example of writer’s block. For the person whose instinctive reaction is to blindly push against the problem, practising mindfulness creates an opportunity to slow down and see what is happening. The first step is to stop and notice what it feels like to be stuck. The simple act of attending to the experience changes the individual’s relationship to the situation. Rather than reacting to discomfort by pushing, mindful observation lets the experience be as it is without trying to change or control it. Here, pushing is replaced with noticing, resistance with allowing. This practice of watching instead of reacting not only cultivates greater clarity about what is actually happening (i.e., being stuck + pushing), but also a more accepting attitude towards both experiences. By fully inhabiting the moment, we learn to discern rather than judge, we’re kinder to ourselves when issues arise, and are better placed to work through these with calm efficiency. Mindfulness opens up a space between stimulus and response, or the problem and our reaction to it, in which the possibility of choice resides. If I can see myself pushing and observe its negative impact, I’m more likely to try doing things differently.
The course The Mindful Researcher is based in the idea that one’s intellectual life and wellbeing are inseparable: researching something that you love or care about should be a source of vitality, nourishment, connection and health, not a threat to it (Berg and Seeber 2016; Evans et al. 2018). By integrating mindfulness and other self-care practices into the research training curriculum, the course challenges the traditional disciplinary or organisational division of academic literacy and learning skills (delivered by graduate research schools and learning centres) from mental health and wellbeing (managed by counselling and allied support services), as well as other areas of the university. In bridging these institutional spaces and messages, it takes a more proactively preventive approach to issues of wellbeing (e.g., stress, overwork) and poor work practices. My hope is that courses like this one contribute to broader cultural change within the university and a shift toward greater health and intellectual livelihood.
Berg, M. and Seeber, B. (2016) The Slow Professor, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Evans, T. M., Bira, L., Gastelum, J. B., Weiss, T., and Vanderford, N. L. (2018) ‘Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education’, Nature Biotechnology, 36: 282-284.
Hassed, C. and Chambers, R. (2014) Mindful Learning, Australia and New Zealand: Exisle Publishing.
Hassed, C. (2016) ‘Mindful learning: Why attention matters in education’, International Journal of School and Educational Psychology, 4(1): 52-60.