In defense of a little chaos

September 9, 2019

Welcome! I send this newsletter just about every week during the academic year to share all of the many things (ideas, revelations, great work, pep talks, things that make me laugh) that don’t fit within the normal confines of my classes, meetings, or everyday conversations. As the semester heats up, sometimes it is difficult for me to stay present in the world, in my body, in my community, etc. Writing this newsletter helps. You can read more about me here.

I’ve read a lot this summer on the challenges of mindfulness practices. First, there’s no doubt that mindfulness can be really helpful to people (including me) in some personal, academic, and professional contexts. However, it’s also important to think critically about the larger trend. For example, there are complexities to the practices that are often oversimplified into a “one-size-fits-all” approach to understanding oneself, and that don’t attend well to the cultural and spiritual origins. The research surrounding mindfulness and its effects on the brain and on general well-being is still in its infancy. And some suggest that mindfulness simply helps people accept and cope with larger injustices and systemic causes of stress on an internal level, instead of helping people challenge the existence of those injustices and stressors in an active, external way.

So, like most things: it’s complicated.

This summer I read this by journalist Taffy Brodesser-Akner and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. Brodesser-Akner (whose first novel, Fleishman Is in Trouble, is clever and wonderful) considers: what if I don’t WANT peace and calm? What if I don’t want the thoughts to float away? She talks about being in the classroom or in synagogue as a child, and discovering that she could go through the motions of page turning and feigning attention, while in her mind the ideas were flowing:

But I could also think. I could make plans. I could dream up stories I wanted to write and places I wanted to go. In the quiet, I could still move forward. You could hold my body in place and obligate it to show up to all kinds of places. But if the moment sucked, I could live in the past or the future. I could live wherever I wanted to.

This was me as a child. I didn’t want to let the thoughts float away. I wanted to have more and more of them, and sort them in my head. My thoughts were like a bowl of spaghetti, thrown against a wall - some stuck, some slithered down to the floor.

What I most appreciate about this piece is her assessment of the very thoughts she’s trying to “let go”:

Here is the thing about mindfulness and routine and slowness: They are great in theory, but when they become more important than the things they were supposed to provide you, they are a danger. They can drown out the voices that are telling you how to live, and that’s what I’m afraid of. These thoughts that everyone is spending so much time trying to chase away—they’re gifts. They are blessings. They are the thing that makes us alive.

I’m not talking about an overly anxious, churning brain here; certainly mindfulness practices are most useful when they can help quiet anxious minds. And I’m also not talking about spiritual practices either. But I like the idea of not making the practice more important than the intended result, and the consideration of our thoughts as blessings.

If you are nervous:

Lots of my students are participating in interviews and career fairs, and are in situations decidedly outside their comfort zone. This week I’m going to share with them a little strategy that works for me when I’m a nervous speaker - whether it’s in a presentation, a speech, an interview, or an impromptu conversation.

This strategy is loosely based on an improv exercise by the late Martin de Maat, an influential instructor at Second City in Chicago. The point of the exercise is to help improvisers get out of their heads and more deeply connect with others.

Here’s the strategy: imagine that the person (or persons) in front of you is/are MORE NERVOUS THAN YOU. Your job, then, in that moment, becomes helping them feel more comfortable with you. As you’re looking at someone across the table in an interview, or a group of people in a presentation, try to make eye contact with the purpose of helping them feel more comfortable with you, with holding your gaze. You’re not in that moment thinking of your own anxiety, or of what’s at stake in the interview, or intimidated by the person across from you. Instead, you’re just focused on helping them feel more comfortable with you.

The thing that makes this exercise work is imagining them as anxious, too. And while this may seem like a reach (especially if there’s a big power imbalance in the room), it’s also true that connecting with others is often difficult for many people.

This exercise has really transformed my own practice. I honestly feel as if I could walk into a room and talk to almost anyone using this method. I hope it helps you, too.

March On, week 2

We had to record this episode two times because at the end of our original attempt, our cat Louisa May Alcatt knocked over a chair and our dog Billy passed gas, precipitating an unstoppable giggle session. This podcasting life is really glamorous.

Other things I loved this week:

Finally, a tale of two Phoebes:

I’m still in Fleabag withdrawal.

And life lessons from Phoebe Buffay - boundaries, people. Boundaries. Happy 25th, Friends:

Hot week, stay cool.

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