Sanctuary

I am writing this in here:

gillams-grocers

Gillams is my little sanctuary; it’s a family run vegetarian café in my town. Doug and Shirley who run it have two very successful musical daughters, Jess and Patsy. I come here a couple of time a week: it offers respite from the confines of my office at home. It’s a dreadful day here in Cumbria. Storm Desmond has hit and there are floods all around. However, I’m cosied up next to the open fire and there are carols playing in the background. It’s lovely.

This is a space where I can think differently and I often come here to read and write. I’d never really reflected on why I escaped to this place so often, other than attributing it to the need to have a ‘change of scene’ after hours at my desk. The readings this week offered me the opportunity to assess this in a little more detail and reflect on how we can find or create ‘the time to look and think’ (Levy, 2007, p.237) in our ‘always on’ digital lives.

tebbit
Get on your bike

I grew up in a family and in a wider culture which valued work; my family have (or rather had) a Calvinistic work ethic and my adolescence was spent in Thatcher’s Britain, a time where consumerism, achievement and hard work were lauded. I have always been a ‘grafter’. I have a propensity to work too hard and this has been compounded by my increasing use of digital communications; when I first started teaching, we still used pigeon holes to drop notes to one another. I now receive circa 100+ emails each day which require some sort of response or action and hundreds more which simply bring information and require ‘sifting’. My recent social media activities have intensified the number of information streams which I deal with on a daily basis.

However, in recent years I have started to question this drive. It’s probably no coincidence that this reconsideration of my values coincided with the start of my practice of mindfulness. I began to practice mindfulness and meditation not as a reaction to overwork but as part of my therapy for an accident which resulted in hearing loss. I’m only two years in, but the impact has been significant. It has caused me to reassess my valuing of work – of busyness – and to step back from the frenetic overthinking which characterised much of my twenties and thirties.

There was much, therefore, in Levy’s article which seemed familiar; the definition of leisure, for example, and its focus on acceptance,  ‘Leisure is an openness to the world, to things as they are rather than as we wish them to be’ (Levy, 2007, p.241) is a familiar theme within the guided meditations which I follow. Levy highlights that for the Greeks ‘leisure was the highest good, the ultimate aim of human life, and work was a lesser, though still necessary, form  of activity’ (p.240). As a reforming workaholic, it is a useful reminder that contemporary western capitalist values are an inversion of this. Levy also cites Pieper, who ‘invokes Thomas Aquinas to argue that leisure, rightly understood and practised, is hardly idleness: on the contrary, it is frenetic overwork that constitutes a form of idleness, and it is overwork or “the restlessness of a self-destructive work fanaticism” (Pieper, 1998, p.27), as he so dramatically puts it – that is the true moral lapse.” (Levy, 2007, p.240).

Levy discusses the work of Thomas Hylland Eriksen, in particular, ‘The Tyranny of the Moment’, In it, Hylland ‘makes a distinction between ‘fast time’ and ‘slow time’ and states that here are some things which shouldn’t be done quickly, like ‘thorough. far-sighted work’ (Eriksen, 2001, p.150). Land highlights how digital communications  operate within fast time, ‘the digital world would seem to thrive, in the main, on ‘fast time’, immediacy of response’ (Land, 2011). Also citing Eriksen, he notes, ‘slow time…..considered necessary for certain kinds of intellectual and emotional experience, for the production of certain forms of thought, and for the generation of certain kinds of knowledge’, Creativity, new ideas and new thoughts arise, Eriksen argues, in the gap: ‘The new arises unexpectedly from the gaps created by slack in time budgets, not from crowded schedules’ (Eriksen, 2001, p.112).

As Land notes, ‘students in the digital age are ‘never away’ but permanently networked’ (Land, 2011). Our crowded digital worlds offer few spaces, few gaps. Where can we as educators and our students find the necessary leisure for creative, original, deep thinking? The rise of mindfulness – including mindfulness in schools -might be seen to be a reaction to the digital busyness which we are trying to navigate. Given the impact which mindfulness and meditation has had on me I welcome these initiatives. However, like others on our forums this week, I feel that they are reactive to a degree. We need to step back further and reassess what education looks like in a digital arena. How do we inculcate higher order thinking skills within a system which values ‘doing’ and producing and which now harnesses fast modes of thinking through increased digitisation?  As Robinson has highlighted, our education system already offers few spaces for creativity, for truly aesthetic experiences (5:56):

Can we leverage the digital to create more spaces, gaps and arenas for thought? Some are reclaiming digital spaces and redefining what they are and how they can be used. Stig brought this video to our attention this week (only watch the whole of it if you have a spare 7 hours) and drew interesting parallels between such work and attempts to counter the ‘gestell’:

Stig

Artists and musicians are carving out spaces for reflection, creating stillness in fast spaces defined by movement. We must also do this within education; we must look at how we can give our students places within which they can be still, as ‘only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still, cannot hear’ (Pieper, 1998, p.31). The IDEL course has done this for me. It has created a sanctuary within which I can reflect on my own practice, engage in discussion with peers and, above all, think. This digital space counters the many others in which I operate which are ‘more protean and restless in nature’ (Land, 2011).

Levy, D. (2007) No time to think: Reflections on information technology and contemplative scholarship, Ethics and Information Technology, 9(4): 233-236
Land, R. (2011) Speed and the Unsettling of Knowledge in the Digital University, in R. Land and S. Bayne (eds), Digital Difference, pp. 61-70

3 Replies to “Sanctuary”

  1. Hi Helen,

    Glad you found a lovely cosy place to be, hope the floods didn’t affect you too badly. I’m glad you find mindfulness useful, I’ve been practising for many years and find it very beneficial.

    The idea of overwork as a form of laziness really strikes me. I think there is too much time in academia spent in unfocused overwork at the expense of asking the big questions about our professional roles in the world.

    I think blogging is a good kind of space for more reflective deep thought, certainly I see that in many of the IDEL blogs, including yours. I think it encourages long slow conversations. Do you think that’s part of what has made IDEL a good sanctuary or is it something else about the course?

    What would stillness be like for our students? Is it time to follow whatever thoughts engage them? Or do we need to provide structured opportunities to engage deeply with a particular topic?

    Best,

    Velda

    1. Hi Velda,

      The floods were dreadful but my town escaped any damage. We were, however, cut off for a few days as the roads were blocked by water and detritus. Although the floods were obviously devastating, it was, curiously and aptly, comforting to be isolated for a while, particularly during a week when I reflected on sanctuary and stillness.

      I’m interested in your comment about having time to reflect on your professional role; I felt the same when I was teaching full-time. I felt that we didn’t step back and thing about what we were doing and why we doing it. We were tangled by busyness, by doing, by overwork.

      With regard to why I feel IDEL has been a sanctuary, the blogging has, yes, contributed to that; as I mentioned in my very first blog post, I had real concerns about my ability to write in a reflective and academic way. The routine of keeping the blog has both sharpened my writing skills but has also ensured that I have to carve out time for contemplation. I often start a blog entry with a very specific idea about what I’m going to say and how I’m going to say it but, as I ruminate and play with ideas (as I slowly work through them) the post can take on a very different form.

      In many schools, staff and students’ days are rigidly timetabled with a bell ringing on the hour, every hour to remind them to move on, to continue to be busy, to do. I think that some unstructured, longer periods in the week where students can work with peers and their teachers on what they want (maybe things they have struggled with or topics which have interested them), or read or simply be would be invaluable. We all, as learners, need time to step back from doing and just be.

      Best,

      Helen

  2. Hi Helen,

    Your writing has been great!

    Unstructured longer periods to work on what we want would be good in many situations I think but definitely in schools.

    Best,

    Velda

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