Image: Model balancing on a champagne bottle, 1904 (Library of Congress)
Imagine the German government dispatching a corps of secular experts on mindfulness meditation to the refugee camps in Greece. Once there, the experts could work with Syrian migrants to manage their stress levels and find inner calm. After all, why bother strategizing your journey north when you can learn about acceptance, impermanence, and the importance of savoring the now?
That scenario has its analogy in the current McMindfulness movement sweeping through corporate America. Several recent critiques of secular meditation have exposed how employer-sponsored mindfulness programs obscure the insanity of our American work culture. Rather than a sustained effort to challenge the soul-crushing conditions under which most Americans labor, mindfulness experts suggest that practitioners need to seek relief by transforming themselves. Parents struggling to balance work and family demands are particularly susceptible.
Within the walls of the Ivory Tower, the gospel of mindfulness also spreads. Every week I hear another colleague extolling the virtues of meditation. Some seek inner peace, but most crave stress reduction from the ever-mounting demands of the neoliberal university.
To be clear: I admire the discipline involved in meditation, and I embrace the idea of taking control of one’s emotional life. For people with anxiety or anger issues, as well as those who suffer from mild depression or more quotidian forms of middle-age malaise, secular mindfulness may assuage or provide a nonpharmaceutical path to a healthier mind.
But it all makes me a bit uneasy.
I won’t lie. I tried secular mindfulness, too. Overwhelmed by the responsibilities of being a professor and a parent, I threw myself into meditation during my sabbatical in Freiburg last year. Gurus like Jon Kabat-Zinn and Sam Harris provided avenues to my mental rejuvenation. Although many demands and obligations followed me from the United States, I committed myself to a program of self-renewal using the precepts of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. I read books and watched videos, and spent hours sitting cross-legged on my folded-over yoga mat trying to cleanse my thoughts and control my emotions.
I struggled at first, but soon found myself enjoying the benefits of meditation. I grew more focused; my productivity soared and I slept better. I wrote a new book in record time. Of course, my reduced level of daily responsibilities while on sabbatical accounted for some of that, but I definitely noticed a new ability to tune out the disturbing thoughts that distracted me from my immediate work.
The problem was that disturbing events caused those disturbing thoughts. They started with the Russian annexation of Crimea, and escalated with the ongoing violence in Ukraine. As a scholar of contemporary European politics, these geopolitical tensions were a professional as well as personal interest. How could I ignore the thousands of civilians caught in the crossfire of a conflict that Mikhail Gorbachev called the possible beginning of a new Cold War?
Since I am living in Europe, the rise of PEGIDA— Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident — a group of anti-immigrant Germans protesting each Monday night in Dresden, Munich, Leipzig, and other German cities, also threatened my inner calm. I lost balance after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in France, during the extended drama of the Greek financial crisis, and once more after the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. Each time my clarity and poise felt assaulted by the news, I retreated to my yoga mat, sitting in stillness for up to an hour a day, purging negative thoughts and blocking out concern for world events beyond my control.
As friends and colleagues took to the streets of Germany to counter-protest the message of PEGIDA, to gather in solidarity with the Greeks, or to welcome the desperate refugees from the Middle East, I stayed home, honing my newly sharp mind. Just as workers embrace secular mindfulness to manage stress created by ever-increasing professional demands, I meditated my way out of the impulse to get involved with the social movements trying to influence Europe’s leaders.
Extended stints of introspection also forced me to examine my desire to challenge the pervasive sexism, discrimination, and exploitative labor conditions that make it so difficult for those with family responsibilities to succeed in academia. Struggling against the larger forces that devalue care work seemed to bring me little but personal frustration and unhappiness. As I considered the sources of stress in my own life, I realized that the feeling that I was tilting at windmills proved to be a great source of anxiety. Don Quixote would have saved himself a lot of trouble if he’d just stayed home and focused on his breathing.
Practicing mindfulness for the last year has taught me to appreciate its value in providing a much-needed mental break from the otherwise hectic life of being a professor parent. And I understand that it’s sometimes both healthy and necessary to accept the things you cannot change.
But if we all retreat to our mats, how will things get better? Those Syrian refugees are fleeing a real civil war. Our culture of overwork, and the corporatization of higher education, is perpetuating gender inequality, destroying our families, and making us unwell. Secular meditation treats the symptoms, but often ignores the underlying disease. And there is something insidious about corporations and universities promoting mindfulness among their employees, particularly those who might otherwise fight for necessary institutional change.
I know there are limits to what any one person can do, but I’ve learned that my version of inner bliss requires some outer engagement with making the world a better place.
Want to talk more about balancing work and family life in academia? I welcome your comments, questions, and suggestions, and hope that all of the Professor Parents among you will find a few moments to share your own experiences with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.