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The theme of this year’s mental health awareness week is kindness. How can we be kinder to ourselves, our failures, and those of others? In keeping with this year’s mental health awareness week’s overall message, I call on us to remind ourselves of these 5 things, all of which pertain to the virtues of patience and radical acceptance.
The Emergence of Negative Thinking is Normal: Human’s brains are wired to pick up on threats to our wellbeing and survival. There is no need to resist all onsets of negative thought patterns and describe it as some pathological deviation. When negative thought patterns do occur, it can be hugely beneficial to simply notice and name the types of thoughts arising before falling into what psychologists call ‘spiralling’. Simply observe it. I am often internally saying to myself: “Hey, I see you… name the thought here: memory, worry, imagination, planning, mind-reading … I accept that this is what I am experiencing, but I do not need to participate in this thought (play with the fire, so to speak).”
Our vulnerability to the contingencies of life is unavoidable: We need not resist the so-called “facts of life” (change, disruption, pressure, uncertainty). To interpret the onset of these facts of life as a problem to resist burdens us with two problems: the first problem being the immediate reality of the world placing demands on our time and labour, the second problem resides in us feeling averse to the demands of reality as a ‘problem’ to escape. Change is a given, there will always be a few limitations placed on our happiness throughout life, let us accept that, and accept the emotional ramifications that arise alongside them.
Appreciate our interdependence: There is no need to go it alone (no matter how strong your sense of independence is). Our personal success and development, despite popular faith in the individual’s initiative, are largely down to the assistance of other people: pursuing academic attainment is near-impossible without the learning resources provided by teachers, tutors, and online content creators, our psychological development is built on the caregiving of parents and friends, our physiological health is contingent on health services, our protection into later life requires social care. Once we accept the ‘dependent’ nature of ‘Rational Animals’ (Macintyre, 2008), the fear of asking for help, for voicing vulnerability, for reaching out to friends and checking in on each other’s mental health becomes less awkward.
Wellbeing works on a spectrum/ X-axis: Seeking wellbeing support is not merely a reactive measure but also a preventative one. Engaging in wellbeing workshops, webinars, and opening up to someone trained in supporting young people’s mental health is not the sole reserve for students at crisis point. The objective of University mental health services to minimise the number of people reaching crisis point. So, all those self-help blogs and mental health tips you scroll past because “I am not mentally ill”, do in fact apply because every day your wellbeing is shifting across the spectrum of faring well and faring badly.
Speak your Mind: MIND ‘for better mental health’ are promoting the #SpeakYourMind this week. Whether that is ‘Voicing Vulnerabilities’, counting the day’s simple blessings, sharing your tips on sustaining motivation, or tips for tackling writer’s block – communicating with your peers cuts the challenges of life in half. Cheers to collaborative strength.
In accordance with these 5 reminders, here is a poem to help you all through…
‘Everything Is Going to Be All Right’ By Derek Mahon
How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.
Owen Barlow, BILT Student Fellow
MacIntyre, A. Dependent Rational Animals : Why Human Beings Need the Virtues. Chicago, Ill.: Open Court, 2008.
Amid COVID-19, many of my peers and I were forced to come to terms with the fact that we would not see cherished friends, colleagues, and tutors for an indefinite period. I was struggling to find the words and internal space for the sadness that accompanied the memories of my university experience which had been abruptly cut short. I found the floods of memories resurfacing rather intrusive, often disrupting my study sessions and interrupting the flow of my dissertation preparation. It turns out you cannot work as effectively when your mind is being pulled in divergent directions…who knew?
The abundant self-help resources concerning ways to wellbeing and positive thinking articles which consistently remind us of the benefits of “mindfulness” for our wellbeing have become increasingly clichéd. Despite the saturation of information about what mindfulness and meditation can do for our mental health, we rarely see how mindfulness practice can re-wire the brain in a way that helps us cultivate practical study skills like concentration and the relinquishing of day-to-day distractions. As the Wellbeing and the Curriculum researcher, it might seem odd to harness this blogpost around concentration and study skills as the primary attainment of mindfulness meditation. Mental health researchers, however, have long noted how episodes of overwhelming anxiety and depression can diminish concentration skills. Concentration, motivation, and reasonable levels of wellbeing are often mutually entailing.
When working from home, the capacity to get a hold over restless minds and jittery thoughts becomes all the more challenging. Most of the student body has been suddenly thrown into the constant close-presence of family members and housemates who unwittingly demand a lot of our time and attention. Our screens notify us with constant news updates and important email updates from the university that feel pressing. Studying from home rather than at the library means we are not situated at a safe distance from our beds, our kitchen cupboards, and our Televisions. This distractible mind of mine need only walk one minute to root through the cupboards for snacks and turn on the TV to alleviate the internal tensions about completing my finals during such a troubling time. Our proximity to innumerable distractions and the uneasiness I felt towards my distractible tendencies was giving me more and more reason to research the brain science behind meditation and commit a sizeable chunk of my quarantine time to daily mindfulness and meditation practice.
One of the most renowned researchers investigating the connection between mindfulness, concentration, and neuroscience is Richard Davidson’s work on ‘The Emotional Life of Your Brain’ (2013) and ‘Train your Mind, Change Your Brain’. The evolutionary interpretation of the human mind sees human alertness and our capacity to react quickly to different stimuli (or threats) as beneficial for survival and protecting ourselves from threats. If you see sense a car coming at you from a different direction to the direction you were focussed on, then your alertness to different stimuli (our distractibility) helps you survive. This biological conditioning helped me to accept that there is no need for self-disparaging attitudes of inadequacy because you “failed” to “conquer” or “overcome” distractibility—the cognitive process is entirely human. No one can fully overcome the erratic processes that the mind produces and a lot of the time we unwittingly get lost in disruptive thought patterns.
The habitual working of a mind lost in “doing mode” is to set this biologically-conditioned ‘alertness’ into every aspect of our lives. Without meditation we can run through the business of day-to-day life without conscious awareness of our thought patterns. In terms of our distractibility, Davidson believes we can only minimise its impact on our lives by turning towards these thought patterns accepting them for what they are and noticing the quality and nature of these patterns with curiosity—a kind of meta-awareness. It is only after detaching from the arising and passing of thoughts and sensations that I began to see how the brain’s neuroplasticity appears to us subjectively. I watched thoughts, feelings, and impulses move through me as impermanent, malleable, and always susceptible to change phenomena.
Without the appropriate direction of attention, it is easy to become conditioned by uncontrollable floods of new mental imagery and internal activations which push and pull us in different directions. On autopilot, we mindlessly respond to the demands, the occurrences, and the pressures of distinct stimuli: the imaginary (the “in our heads” memories, beliefs, apprehensions); and the external or physiological stimuli of hunger, human interaction, and impulses. But I have never performed particularly well in situations of relentless reactive thinking. Yet the more and more I tried to force myself to conform to the “ideal” way of studying during isolation, how I “should” just focus, and “ought” to have accomplished this work by now, the more and more frustrated I would become about the possibility of failing. But meditation practices originating from the Zen tradition offer some of the most compassionate approaches to mindfulness practice and harnessing concentration as the tradition encourages participants to cultivate ‘Radical Acceptance’ (2004) of our imperfect and ever-changing selves. This helped me come to terms with lingering afflictions about mental dullness, unproductivity, lack of concentration, and distractibility during isolation.
Initially, the transition into isolation felt rather manic and disharmonious, as I was striving to be “productive” rather than allowing the conscientiousness that got me to where I am in my academic career to flow out of me with more natural ease and engaged creativity. Since many aspects of business life are now on pause, I am finding more time to introspect and come to a few helpful realisations about my distractibility. I have now admitted to myself that my mental life before the lockdown was frightfully future-oriented. Teeming with frantic dispositions to run forward and try to catch up with the “ideal” self, I never gave myself the chance to mindfully breathe. Rarely did I enter a meditative space where I fully comprehended and appreciated the abundance of significant things around me. Rarely did I take notice of my body, how it sits and moves through the immediate and present surroundings, how feelings and sensations pass through temporarily and need not subject me to passing impulses. As I notice the changes in my thinking and capacity to focus, I am now more cautious of this subtle habit of mindlessness which develops throughout our busy lives and leaves many of us pressing into projects, hobbies, or the increasingly clichéd “quarantine activities” like an automaton with barely any conscious awareness of what we truly value and how we intend to use our time in quarantine.
In light of all this self-reflection, I set a commitment to cultivating Concentration and Calm through two weeks of daily meditation. Most of my meditation practice was guided by videos from Zen retreat channels and other experts on YouTube, as well as more personable practice and open conversations with Zen practitioners working for the University’s Multifaith Chaplaincy (still running remotely during this period). Even after only a week’s worth of mindfulness practice, I was already unveiling fresh insights about how I might live my life with more clarity, more calmness, and more focus. I could see those niggling thoughts pulling my attention away from what I set out to do, I took note of them, and then I let them pass by rather than play around with them.
Higher education successfully equips students with critical thinking skills, but few students receive the mental training required to discern between the objects and qualities worthy of critical evaluation and those self-directed value judgements that are simply self-deprecating. When these critical assessments are not contained or set into a larger perspective then our minds can become restless and easily distracted. Most often, the least productive criticisms are the ones we disparagingly directed toward past actions which are no longer within our control. The dwelling and chewing on our perceived “failures” of the past is referred to by psychologists as rumination and usually obsessive retrospective thinking rarely yield positive results, solutions, or answers that might help us in such a vague and uncertain future. The only time observing the past and criticising our failures might become productive is when we acknowledge that ‘I was not happy with the way that turned out, but I recognise what I did there and I will try to become more mindful of that behaviour if similar circumstances arise in the future.’ The observations, perceptions, and awareness’s most worth cultivating is mindfulness of the internal life and external surroundings of the present moment. What we did is already done; it happened, but now this is happening.
The risk of increased time with our inner world is that we spiral into unhelpful rumination or anxiety over our uncertain futures. But the kind of introspection and self-reflection I am defending involves meditation and tuning in with what is going on internally (our present values, intentions, and needs) rather than mindlessly busying ourselves with activity just to run away from unpleasant feelings. To cultivate a space where we can be focussed and concentrated on the precise steps towards satisfying, engaging, and fulfilling our studies and a sense of balance. It is helpful not to lose sight of all the simple events right in front of us instead of getting swallowed up by background noise of mental activity.
Despite all of my positive reflections on meditation, I caution against anyone interpreting meditation as a catch-all “solution” to high levels of de-motivation and distractibility. Mindfulness practice will not automatically enable us to accomplish all our aspirations or attain the “best” self who appears more focussed, centred, and concentrated. This is not what meditation is premised on because such future-oriented aspirations take us away from the present moment. Also, Buddhists rarely think of the “self” in the same way we Westerners do, as their metaphysics reminds us that all things as impermanent – including our understanding of self-identity. Meditation is better thought of as opening up the changeable activity of the internal mind, so we actively observe our most frequent thought patterns and how they interrelate with mood fluctuations rather than engage with them, Buddhist practitioners sometimes call this “examining the floor of your thoughts”, not analysing the content of your thoughts. The arduous process of learning to simply sit with physical discomfort and observe the arising-passing of thoughts, memories, and emotions rather than participate in the inner chatter requires discipline, it requires non-judgmental focus—essential for a self-compassionate approach to cultivating study skills.
The public outreach
conference was conceived in late December 2019 and was envisioned as the launch
for an annual series of conferences celebrating Wellbeing research and practice
across Bristol. Our (BILT, SU Wellbeing Network and Education Network) hope was
that the conference would create a space for people working on or interested in
mental health and wellbeing to come together, network, collaborate, and
We aimed to galvanise and
centralize wellbeing-related practices, initiatives, and research going on
across the city.
Over the day we were
inspired by a burgeoning community of students, academics, creatives, and wellbeing
practitioners, all working on innovative ways to alleviate mental illness and
barriers to student flourishing in the future.
We were honoured to host Dr Dominique Thompson a TEDX speaker and wellness consultant as our keynote speaker. Thompson spoke sensitively about “Young People’s Mental Health in the 21st Century: A Perfect Storm?” to round up this action-packed day. Themes around perfectionism, competitiveness, and fears of failure tormenting students. As well as reflecting on how these might impede on student performance rather than facilitate creativity and risk-taking.
Alongside our more
research-based activities, participants enjoyed a whole host of creative
workshops from drama therapy to breathing soundscapes, music, and yoga.
The wellbeing themes covered throughout the day
were wide and varied. Contentious issues were not overlooked as participants
contributed to the debate on Drugs, Alcohol, and Mental Health:A
Harm Reduction approach or Zero Tolerance? with Dr Alison Golden-Wright.
We also hosted a deeply honest and touching panel discussion on the theme of coping with Grief and Illness which feels particularly pertinent in these uncertain times of COVID-19. Perhaps this topic is something that the University agenda ought to touch on more often so as to prepare students and staff for the unexpected and uncontrollable facts of life.
and Illness Panel (from left to right): Gigi Auslebrook, Michael Pearson, Stephanie
Clark, Lucy Selman, and Havi Carel.
Gigi Auslebrook, who was representing CoppaFeel’s cancer coffee mornings throughout the day and participated in this panel, spoke openly about her own experiences of grief whilst at University. She writes:
“I thought the conference was great, the turnout was excellent, and I enjoyed participating in the panel discussion. I was so privileged to talk alongside Michael Pearson (deputy head of counselling), Lucy Selman (academic in palliative care) and Havi Carel (philosopher on death and illness). It was great listening to people speaking so openly about grief and illness and essentially normalising the conversation around it, as death feels like such a taboo subject to talk about. Participating in the panel helped me to feel less alone with my experiences which was a relief. I would have really appreciated a conference like this taking place last year when I was going through everything. It would have helped me so much. I would strongly recommend hosting another panel/ workshop/ talk on grief and illness next year as it still affects so many of us! I spoke to Havi more personally after the panel for a more in-depth discussion. It was comforting to hear about her experiences and discuss mine so openly with her. Also, I was able to speak to wellbeing advisors who didn’t know about my cancer coffee morning which was great. Connecting with likeminded people was the most important part.”
One second-year Physics student said the conference helped her “to feel excited about the future of mental health” she went on to explain how the day enabled her to “make connections, make plans, and make stuff happen”. Providing a networking space for wellbeing practitioners across Bristol is a good starting point for enhancing collaboration and creativity across services and support groups in Bristol. Another student interning at Off the Record, a charity supporting young people’s mental health, described how the conference was a useful opportunity to network with local initiatives.
The most rewarding part of the conference from an organisational point of view was entering into enlivening conversations with fellow students and colleagues about what motivated them to attend or participate on conference day. After weeks of back-and-forth emails trying to organise the day, to have some face to face contact with approachable and friendly folk. All of the people I spoke to seemed willing to open up about their experiences, their hopes, and their take-home lessons from the conference.
As we turn towards digital resources to educate our community, may we also remind ourselves of the inherent value of face-to-face encounters, as they can often leave a more lasting impression on people looking for support and connection. After the pandemic subsides, may we better appreciate our interpersonal encounters and public spaces where open dialogue can happen. Let us set time aside from our desktop screens and emails so we can reclaim the power of opening up to each other about “how we are really doing” as so many people were doing in close proximity to one another at the conference (something which we may have taken for granted at the time).
Let me start by being frank, sustaining motivation to complete University assignments amid a pandemic is obviously a trying situation. It is only human to initially feel unsettled, stressed, and confused in this situation. These feelings do not make you weak or pathetic, they remind you that you are alive and aware of the world around you. Still, many of us do not want this situation to signal the end of our inspiration and motivation to carry on learning; we have come so far through the education system to give up hope so close to the finish line. Yes, it will take some time to sufficiently adjust to the unfamiliarity of these kinds of external contingencies (it’s a marathon not a sprint), but all we can do is try.
For now, I am trying to take it day by day and accept what I cannot control to instead concentrate on what is within my control, as Goethe writes: “Only the present is our happiness”. So how we choose to spend our time right now in these new confines, how we choose to treat our minds, bodies, and other people will make all the difference.
I will start this new series of “What to do when?” by addressing one of the most pressing questions that arises from all the changes to the University curriculum: What to do when asked to work from home?
One caveat I must begin by mentioning is that there will be a whole host of resources and words of advice on the internet that encourage a “one size fits all” method to working from home. Take these with a pinch of salt. Remember, we all develop different approaches to how we work best. One of the most fruitful things I did to overcome my tendency to stress over why I was not following the supposedly “Best” study methods was getting to know myself better by asking myself the right questions. One useful resource for getting to know yourself better and how to grow from your strengths rather than dwell on your weaknesses is the VIA survey on character strengths. It takes a little while to complete but it is useful to know how to enhance your strengths and keep yourself happy in the process. Here is what works for me and might work for you.
Establish a morning that works for you: Set your alarm to wake you up at an hour that gives you ample time to savour your free morning’s before sitting at the desk for the 9AM start. 7AM seems to work for me and a couple of my housemates. To enjoy these mornings, I am starting to try out one activity that I always thought was an “ideal” to start the day but never got around to doing before the rush to University or the office. I usually try to dip into one of my leisurely reads before heading out, but since I do not want to make living and working from home monotonous, I plan on alternating my morning routine to include reading, morning meditation and a walk round the block (to compensate for the commute to work). Perhaps alternating some of these activities might also work for you, perhaps you have some “ideal mornings” of your own that you have been waiting to try out.
Remember to do the basics: Get dressed, eat breakfast, shower. Letting these slip creates a sense of lag in our day. Studies show that clothing choices shape our mood, affect our self-motivation and confidence, and have an impact on our problem solving and creative thinking. If you are not one for breakfast make sure you set aside time to eat when you get hungry away from your computer. Eating mindfully and enjoying your breaks away from work is a sure-safe way to wellbeing.
Create the ‘transition’ space: If, like me and many other students living in private accommodation, you are not spoiled for space, try to settle on a space where you feel you can best transition from work mode to home mode. The space could be the shower, walking around the block again with your headphones on, or dancing to your post-work feel good playlists. Sometimes writing in a loose, stream of consciousness kind of way about what was accomplished and what you were looking forward to doing with your evening helps.
Accept your adaptability: For some of us rigidly scheduling in every hour of the work from home day feels like an insurmountable task. With adaptability, remember that some days it might seem more appropriate to simply follow inspirations and autonomous motivation more freely, whilst others days might require you to rigidly follow the plans and previous orders you set yourself earlier in the day. In any case, stressing over not completing a certain task within a set amount of time can add a burdensome pressure to work fast, rather than work well. Working fast has its drawbacks in terms of inaccuracy, lack of cogency, and not leaving time for critical thinking. So if you’ve hit a wall with the dissertation writing, that’s okay. In fact, it’s normal. Don’t dwell, write down what has made you stop writing and when you might resolve it on a little note. Then dip into one of your other readings for another essay, exam, or experiment.
Be Realistic: Some people find they approach their ‘To-do’ lists with an overly ambitious hope of completing almost all possible tasks, only to feel deflated at the end of the working day. To avoid situations of demotivating disappointment, I prefer to write down a helpful list of ‘Reminders’ rather than a unnerving list of ‘To-Do’s’ on a One Note or a word document. I highlight the reminders in red, amber, green in terms of their priority and strike them through when complete.
Zone Out: At the end of the working day… switch off your computer for a while and tidy away papers, books, and stationery. As the work day draws to a close, do something radically different to your previous work. Variation allows us to break up the repetitive days. Cook, paint, draw, sing, dance, whatever is going to shake off the workload tension. Do what keeps you energized rather than the unhelpful coping strategies like alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs that keep you deflated. Again, this situation is a marathon not a sprint, do the things that will sustain you, not break you.
Reach out and communicate: The most important thing to remember is that your peers, your family, your friends, and your colleagues all share this collective struggle. Open up to them if you have hit a wall, or you are feeling the strain.
This event is not a total catastrophe but it is not nothing much at all either.
Try to situate your perspective somewhere along the middle, strike a balance, and BREATHE.
Owen Barlow, Student Fellow ‘Wellbeing and the Curriculum’
Michael at the local allotment where he gains ideas about how to cultivate intimate relationships with nature that somewhat shape his approach to teaching.
Michael at the local allotment where he gains ideas about how to cultivate intimate relationships with nature that sometimes shape his approach to teaching.
As February storms raged across an already embattled Britain (weather-wise and politically), Michael and I took refuge in the Multifaith Chaplaincy to contemplate why hope might still be possible for us. After our cups of tea brewed, I congratulated Michael on his BOB award and we promptly entered what would prove to be a fruitful and therapeutic discussion around the relationship between his personal experiences and his teaching.
Michael, from what I have heard from fellow Liberal Artists and your award, your environmental humanities lectures for the “Ideas and Society” module are going down a treat. Do you recall what attracted you to thinking about the connection between the state of the Anthropocene and radical hope?
I can actually trace it back to a particular moment. It was during a walk in the Peak District with a friend, right after the 2017 General Election. We were talking about frustrated hopes and the experience of political defeat when he mentioned a book he had been reading, one that was helping him to make sense of what was going on. The book was called “Hope in the Dark”, by Rebecca Solnit, and although it’s a slender book, it’s full of expansive ideas and propositions. I recommend it to students all the time.
One of Solnit’s arguments is that our understanding of activism, and our model of case and effect, is often too simplistic. We like to operate under the assumption that action A will lead to action B, according to Solnit, and that there should be a discernible pattern between what we do and the effect of those actions. But her argument is that we can never fully comprehend the scale of our interventions in the world, since they will take on shapes and forms that we won’t necessarily be able to recognise. ‘It’s always too soon to go home’, she writes. ‘And it’s always too soon to calculate effect.’
Solnit illustrates this with an interesting story. In the 1960s, there was an anti-nuclear lobby group called Women Strike for Peace. The group was particularly alarmed by radioactive particles that began turning up in mother’s milk and had organised a series of protests outside the White House. There was a curious anecdote from one of the women involved in WSP. Apparently, this person said she sometimes felt a little foolish during the group’s protests – standing in the rain with her cardboard sign, chanting slogans she felt nobody was listening to. But Solnit points out that somebody was noticing. A few years after these protests, a paediatrician called Benjamin Spock, who made crucial contributions to the anti-nuclear movement, was asked: ‘what inspired you to speak out on this issue?’ When he responded, he started talking about a group of women he saw one day outside the White House…
I guess that what Solnit means when she says ‘it’s always too soon to calculate effect’. Sometimes an intervention can assume a shape in the world that you could never have imagined.
I was curious to know about where you grew up and whether natural landscapes shaped your relationship with nature? What does landscape mean to you personally?
I grew up in Jakarta, Indonesia, and didn’t really have much access to the natural world. But when I was ten my family moved to Australia and we were lucky enough to live in a house by a canal. We had a small ‘tinny’, a three metre aluminium boat with a 6 horsepower outboard engine, and that was my ticket into a different world: an intricate network of canals, and, further out, a huge mangrove system and a shallow estuary we called the ‘Broadwater’. I remember taking the boat out one morning and seeing a school of dolphins swim past – no more than five meters away. That was pretty special, to be so near the Broadwater, and to be able to strike out on your own.
As for a conscious appreciation of nature, though, I don’t think I ever had that as a boy. If you’re lucky enough to be near some form wildness – and that can simply be a suburban park, of course – and if you’re allowed to roam there on your own, you just become immersed in a place. And before you have a critical apprehension of a place you have an intuitive relationship with it. It may become harder to recover that intuitive relationship as you get older, I don’t know. But I also think there’s also a sweet spot when the two harmonise, when you have a feral appreciation of a place as well as a self-reflexive engagement with it.
I recall you integrating trips out to the sea into your teaching? How was that experience for you and the students?
Oh yes. That trip to Severn Beach was part of a “teach out” during the industrial action last year. We paid £1.50 for a return train trip and had a great day out. Reflecting on it now, I think one reason the trip was so enjoyable was because it had nothing to do with our syllabus. We had no aim or agenda, and were just going to see what the light was doing and what the birds were doing.
As much as I can, I’ve been trying to bring more of these experiences into my teaching. It can be liberating for the students, I think, and for the teacher too. By inviting other ways of learning into the seminar, I’ve seen students become much more curious about the material we’re engaging with. Anxieties about self-presentation drop away, there’s a greater sense of ownership over the direction of our learning, and discussions become that much livelier as a result. Some of the best discussions I’ve experienced are the ones where I’ve abandoned my teaching plans. Or during that walk along Severn Beach, which was hardly a ‘seminar’ at all, but which went straight to the heart of the module, which was about the history of relationships between humans and the nonhuman world. We came away from that trip with an appreciation for small marvels: the driftwood that had washed up on the beach, the oystercatchers wheeling over the estuary, and the rich wonderful mud of Severn Beach. And yet we didn’t organise the trip with that purpose in mind. It’s just what happened when we turned up and started paying attention.
This seems like a mindful experience, something of immense value in the context of low levels of wellbeing among students. In line with thinking about students as subjects, how might learning about hope affect students who are experiencing a volatile era of climate uncertainty and political unsettlement?
I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to the topic of hope, but also increasingly critical about how it’s discussed. Engaging with hope can be incredibly empowering for students (how could it not be?), but there are different kinds of hope out there, and some forms of hope can be politically suspect and actively disempowering. So I think the first task is to distinguish between these different forms of hope, and to develop a critical vocabulary for thinking about this topic. At the moment, we seem to be in a situation where there’s an abundance of false hope but an undersupply of genuine hope, and I think it’s crucial to know the difference between the two, so that you don’t contribute to the oversupply of one and the paucity of the other.
For me, hope has less to do with a faith that the future will look better than the present and more to do with a critical understanding of what is possible when we begin to think and act in more communal and expansive ways. I see it very much as a political concept – a concept that can do political work – rather than as a theological concept, in which the possibility of hope is placed in a transcendent (rather than human) realm.
I realise this might sound a little strange. We don’t usually understand the work of hope to involve the daily (and sometimes quite mundane) realities of civic engagement. But the more I think about this topic, the more I see that politics and critical thinking are central to the practice of hope. This is for a number of reasons. One is that an unreflective kind of hope can be deeply counterproductive, because it can undermine the very thing you are trying to achieve. This is the kind of hope that takes the form, ‘things are going to get better, we just have to be patient’, which of course is a depoliticised form of hope, because it takes away your own obligations to act, in whatever form that might take – resisting, making, intervening, speaking, listening, co-creating. Critical hope takes on a completely different form, in that it’s a form of hope that increases rather than diminishes your obligations. It’s a kind of hope that makes particular demands on you to act in the world, even as you relinquish the desire to know what the consequences of your actions will look like.
What has been giving you hope lately? What are some of the boundaries to your sense of hope?
My students and I had a fascinating discussion in a seminar last week. We were talking about T.S Eliot’s‘The Waste Land’, a poem that was published nearly a hundred years ago now, and I was intrigued to see the students making powerful connections between the cultural crisis Eliot was describing and ecological crisis of our own time. According to one student, there was an eerie resonance between certain sectons in the poem and the 2019-20 wildfires in Australia, while another student read the poem in light of recent declarations of a climate emergency, in Britain and around the world. Another student said: “I feel like our generation has a different relationship to the future than our parent’s generation. Whereas our parents saw the future as open-ended, to us the future seems increasingly closed.’ So, very early on in our seminar, the poem led to some difficult but important conversations around emergency, disillusion and powerlessness. There was a shared sense that the only predictable thing in the current climate was unpredictability.
But after discussing these issues, we looked at the poem again. We wanted to see if, amid the various ‘wastelands’ described by the poem, there were also examples or models for how one might respond to crisis. Of course, we didn’t find anything. ‘The Waste Land’ is one of the most powerful poems I know, but it’s also one of the most bewildering, and I still don’t really understand what it’s about. In any case, we started talking about the final section of the poem, which is when – after a long period of drought (ecologically and spiritually) – the skies fill with the sound of thunder. It’s an ominous moment, of course – a sign of troubled weather – and the poem also tells us that this is ‘dry sterile thunder’, without the promise of rain. A few stanzas later, however, we do get a trickle of rain. A ‘flash of lighting’ appears over an abandoned chapel, which is soon followed by a ‘damp gust / bringing rain.’
We didn’t quite know what to make of this as a class. The image of a storm gathering over an abandoned chapel isn’t exactly consoling or comforting. And yet, after the dryness of the earlier stanzas, the appearance of rain offered a sense of physical relief. There is so much disturbance in the poem – images of communities and processes out of joint. But here was a glimmer of something that may have been good. It was only a glimmer, and it had to be seen within the context of background ruin and devastation. Nonetheless, it was an image we felt we could work with – and perhaps even work towards – despite the fact (or precisely because) it was so ambiguous.
I guess there’s another parallel here with the work of Rebeca Solnit. In Hope in the Dark, she writes that contained in the word ‘emergency’ is the word ‘emerge’, and I think that what critical hope does is extend your capacity to see glimmers of possibility during moments of crisis, while remaining alert to its darker dimensions (as Naomi Klein outlines in The Shock Doctrine, crises can offer special opportunities for ‘disaster capitalists’ to extend and solidify their power).
Of course, there’s always a danger that ‘critical hope’ can relax into cliché. And there’s always the possibility that, by focusing so determinedly on hope, you only come to see examples of ‘emergence’, and pay less attention to the facts of the ‘emergency’. But taken with the right amount of tension, I think the notion of ‘critical hope’ can be a very powerful and motivating for students, a way of responding skilfully and courageously to moments of crisis.
Many of us do struggle to see the “emergence” in the midst of all this volatility.
It’s easy to see why. ‘History is what hurts’, as Frederic Jameson says, and if history is any guide to the future, it’s clear there will be much more volatility to come (without even mentioning, of course, the scale of the current climate breakdown, which is completely new to human history). And, as any activist will tell you, it’s incredibly easy to lose hope and feel burned out in the midst of a long political struggle. You begin to realise just how entrenched the current economic systems are, and how unresponsive political and cultural institutions have become. Then there’s the difficulty of living with the contradiction between the insights you might have about what is socially possible and the lived reality of life under capitalism. Living with that contradiction can quickly lead to hopelessness, or, just as often, lead you to relinquish idealism in favour of ‘realism’. But again – and as long as it doesn’t relax into sentimentalism – a notion of critical hope might come in useful here. Even as it commits you to acting in the world, and even as it forces you to be critical of uncritical hope, it also transforms your understanding what change might look like, which itself offers grounds for hope.
I enjoyed hearing that you are learning from students as much as the students are learning from you. What new teaching methods do you hope to bring to students in the future?
A couple years ago, I enrolled on a herbalism course in Stroud, and was inspired by the teaching methods of the instructor Nathan Hughes. His approach to the subject was both rigorous and joyful, and I’ve found myself wanting to transfer some of the things I’ve learned from him to my own practice as a teacher. For example, when it comes to learning about a new plant, we are asked to ‘meet’ the plant in its natural environment. This can involve a variety of forms: sitting next to the plant, observing it closely, drawing it with pencil, watching how it responds to the light and wind, seeing what insects are drawn to the plant, studying the environment in which it likes to grow, noting the other plants that you might find in its vicinity, and so on. So, long before you know the plant’s common or Latin name, and long before you’ve begun learning about its medicinal uses, you’ve already developed an embodied relationship with the plant. You’ve paid attention to it; and you’ve looked at it for yourself.
Although there’s only so much you can do within the confines of a seminar room, I’ve tried to introduce strands of this approach into my own teaching. I’ve been teaching a module this year called ‘What is Nature?’, and during one of our seminars we went to Royal Fort Gardens, with no other purpose in mind than to look at the trees. We looked at an ash tree, a mulberry tree, as well as an impressive hornbeam tree, and spent a bit of time listening to the different sounds they made in the wind, looking at how they changed in the light, as the clouds came and went, and drawing them as carefully as we could. Towards the end of the session, we also came up with some words for the trees, based on the principle of Anglo-Saxon kennings, in which an object is described with a compound phrase rather than a noun. Some of the kennings were amazingly inventive, such as ‘cloud anchor’, ‘weathered companion’, ‘light catcher’, and ‘arthritic witches’ hands’, a phrase which nicely captured the twisting branches of the mulberry.
It does seem odd, especially because most of academia rejects mind-body dualism and turns towards thinking about perception from the standpoint of embodied existence. Like why are we still employing the same teaching methods such as large lecture halls, and chalk boards which have been within the University since its inception? I believe the teaching methods ought to evolve with the advances in knowledge about the human condition.
Yes, that’s right. We know that we flourish as learners when the whole mind and body are involved in the effort of understanding and making sense of a thing. But sometimes we find ourselves teaching in ways that obstruct those kinds of approaches and engagements. We end up promoting a particular kind of approach to knowledge (one that is disembodied and instrumental) at the expense of other forms of apprehension, in which being able to stay with ambiguity and complexity are just as important as finding a clear ‘answer’.
There’s a wonderful passage in Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain that I often think about. It’s a moment when she advises her reader to ‘Lay the head down, or better still, face away from what you look at, and bend with straddled legs till you see your world upside down’. As you look, the landscape alters before your eyes, so that, from the the ‘close-by sprigs of heather to the most distant fold of the land’, each detail will stand ‘erect in its own validity’. And as you look in this way, something else might happen too. Rather than being ‘the focal point’ of the scene, the focal point will be distributed across the landscape, because you will have dislocated your usual ways of looking.
I love that. It’s like advice given by a child in the middle of a game, but here it is offered by a writer who, when she wrote those words, was in her early 50s and was living through the final years of the Second World War. For Shepherd, knowledge is a kind of garden – a place you can walk into, get lost in, and explore with your mind and body. And though she encourages you to be precise in your looking, she also demonstrates that you can still be child-like in your wonder, and that’s the wonderful thing about her – that synthesis of empiricism and Pre-Socratic awe. She also demonstrates something else that continues to inspire me – the fact that you can bring together sensibilities that are sometimes divided from each other, and in such a way that those sensibilities sharpen rather than diminish each other. Her writing is devoted without being pious, practical without being utilitarian, whole-bodied without being anti-intellectual, and intellectual without being abstract. For best results, look at the world through your legs, but be sure to do this upside down…
So yes, to get back to your question, there are lots of improvements and changes we can make to how we teach. For one, I’d like to see a more concerted attempt to connect phenomenological approaches with intellectual ones, but perhaps that requires a large-scale transformation to our picture of what knowledge is or can be. One of the implicit educational models we seem to be working with is that we’re ‘brains in a vat’, trying to soak up the best of what’s been thought and said, while also learning to be critical in our relationship to that knowledge. But what if, instead of beginning and ending with that picture, we started from a different premise – that of human embodiment? What would things look like if we proceeded from there? Of course, there’s much that’s good in our current model, but it’s also limited for some of the reasons we’ve been discussing. Perhaps a synthesis along the lines modelled by Nan Shepherd is what we need.
Who influenced you most whilst at University?
My most influential teacher was a lecturer at the University of Queensland. I was studying economics at the time, but decided to take an optional module in the English department. It was an incredible course – we readbooks by Leo Tolstoy, Henry James, Emil Cioran and others – and afterwards I found that I just couldn’t go back to economics. The lecturer’s name was Peter Holbrook and although his course was intellectually rigorous, it was also good fun – serious fun. He had a way of getting you actively involved in the various questions posed by a book – philosophical, political, aesthetic, historical, cultural – while also making sure you didn’t forget about the simple joy of reading, the delight of literature. I still feel very grateful to Peter for making those books come alive for us, and for steering me away from a degree in economics, which would probably have been disastrous for me.
After enjoying lunch
at the Multifaith Chapliancy with fellow students, a recent
feature on the Humans of Bristol University series, I entered into ‘Faith
Conversations: Well-being and the University’ with staff and students. This
perceptive conversation was led by Chaplains from different faith traditions,
namely Sister JinHo (Buddhist Chaplain), Ed Davis (Coordinating Chaplain) and Jacqueling
Conradie-Faul (International Student Chaplain).
(Ed opens the
When we talk about well-being, we are not only referring to the biomedical aspect. Universally, we all possess fundamental needs that must be met if we are to survive and thrive. We need hope, meaning, understanding, connection, belonging, and acceptance. We need some sense of balance and beauty, though these can appear like high and lofty concepts.
It’s not merely the absence of difficulties, but acknowledging the presence of love, acceptance, and belonging in spite of difficulties. This is where faith, by that I mean faith in a broad sense: nature, relationships, activities, or some higher deities can bring feelings of love, joy, peace, patience, and self-control.
There is room for
difficulty and suffering within well-being, as these feelings are what is part
of being human. It is not merely the absence of things such as failure that
will give rise to well-being. In the prospect of failure, there is adventure,
there is thrill, I think we must also think about failure more holistically.
In light of all this, the faith tradition which I participate in tends to place the inevitability of suffering at the heart of the doctrine. I mean the image of the crucifix, the image of Christianity, represents the image of suffering. Some thinkers have interpreted life as knowing how to live with suffering, how to lessen our adverse response to suffering, and learning how to suffer well.
Should we accept institutional failures then?
What does this acceptance of suffering mean for justice?
I don’t think we benefit from trying to repress and erase the prospect of pain and failure that we will inevitably encounter throughout our time at University and beyond. An acceptance of life’s contingency helps us to respond with ease to the unplanned events we must encounter throughout our life. That is not to say we should never commit to social justice causes, campaigns, and virtuous actions on the basis of hope and faith – on the contrary. This acceptance should not prevent us from committing to some cause greater than ourselves.
Ed draws my attention to an extract from DH.
DH. Lawrence’s poem
points out that even in the darkest shadows we can still find moments of
well-being, his poetic thought reminds us that is possible to attain moments of
well-being in the face of uncertainty, ambivalence, and impermanence.In
the face of life’s uncertainty, we must maintain a certain ounce of faith in
the more ephemeral moments of beauty and connection.
“And if, in the changing phases of man’s life
I fall in sickness and in misery
my wrists seem broken and my heart seems dead
and strength is gone, and my life
is only the leavings of a life:
and still, among it all, snatches of lovely oblivion,
and snatches of renewal
odd, wintry flowers upon the withered stem, yet new, strange flowers
such as my life has not brought forth before, new blossoms of me
then I must know that still
I am in the hands of the unknown,
it is breaking me down to its own oblivion
to send me forth on a new morning, a new man.”
Lawrence’s poem resonated with everyone
in the room. We agreed the poem touched on something universal and beautiful:
the resurrection of beauty in the face of darkness.
In thinking about this poem and the theme
of Faith in the Face of Failure, I ask how would you reply to those who are
sceptical of faith? Or console those who struggle to sustain a commitment to
something a bit more self-transcendent?
Of course, some people worry that faith
is too often used as a crutch – and sometimes it is. But I cannot jump to
over-generalisations about the values of faith; I prefer to see the search for
faith as akin to finding and putting on glasses to see the world with more
clarity – this clarity will not always open up pleasurable experiences. But if
we do not sustain a hopeful commitment to something: whether that be nature,
science, justice or any valuable human endeavour, then how can we begin to
orientate ourselves and find a way to push on in the face of inevitable
Jacqueline: Also, we should point out the work of
action groups when we think about how we can set our values and faith into
practice. The Local Government Association worked with Faith Action to
see how faith groups can promote health and well-being. Their work came across
communities and groups that share their material and human resources
generously, their buildings, and their social networks to secure well-being not
only for their own community but the society at large. I found this to be quite
useful. In Bristol, we have come across these examples of generous interfaith
support quite often. The Bristol International Students Centre that is
supported by a multitude of different faith networks contribute time, support
at foodbanks and food waste prevention centres – it is truly remarkable to see
how students benefit from this. There are so many avenues where people can
learn to express and practice faith. It can be as big or as small as they deem
Do you think practicing virtue on the
basis of faith is conducive to good well-being then?
Sister JinHo: When someone acts out of kindness,
whether that be a professor or a peer in your lectures, we have to remember
that these kind acts are the fruit of something else. Something that required
experience, growth, and cultivation prior to the fruit.
James: I also believe we need to have faith in our own
abilities as well as faith in something larger than ourselves. We need faith
when something does not go to plan, a faith that things will at some point get
better. I have been practicing meditation each morning for about five days in a
row, I have seen the positive outset of this practice, even though it might not
be a direct result. Initially, I found it quite tough and I am sure I was not
practicing as much as Sister JinHo would expect, but I am now feeling the
Elizabeth: Holding a faith in yourself is so
important. Finding this faith and maintaining a sense of self-compassion can be
so difficult. We grow up in educational settings which are so result-driven.
The pressures to score the top grades from GCSE to A-Level are brought forth
into University. We expect so much from ourselves now. When we focus solely on
the results of our assessment, and work only with these in minds, we often
neglect the other valuable parts of ourselves that we derive energy from in
order to thrive. I think we need to look more holistically at our university
experience so we can grow as people as well as academics.
As the Faith and Well-being conversation draws to a close and we all take a moment to appreciate the discovery of new illuminating perspectives on how to maintain reasonable levels of well-being both inside and outside University.
It’s lunchtime on Woodland Road. The autumn skylight floods in through the bay window at the Multifaith Chaplaincy. The meeting space is bustling with a few members of staff and dozens of students all giving friendly greetings and catching up over complimentary tea, coffee, and today’s affordably priced soup: Thai Style Pea, Mint & Coconut.
I weave through groups of students immersed in conversation and try to capture a few snippets of student conversations, thoughts, feelings, and perspectives centered around dis/connection, failure, and feedback that make up our experiences of vulnerability whilst at the University. The approach of this Humans of Bristol University feature is to turn towards community spaces at the University and the people bringing these spaces to life.
What brings you to
the Multifaith Chaplaincy?
Emily: I love this space.
I love the soup. I love what these women are doing here; affordable soup is
such an incentive to meet up with friends and grab lunch on campus. The meeting
room has a calm and relaxing atmosphere.
Tom: Yeah. I feel like it is a much better working environment than some of the larger libraries across the campus with clinical lighting and intimidating atmospheres. For me, the Arts and Social Science Library might be a good spot if you are doing work at 3 AM and want to stay awake. But I find the space quite clinical. In often feels like a sad place in the daytime, so I tend to come to the Multifaith Chaplaincy to study in a more relaxing ‘Living Room’ environment.
Do you think
University staff and students could benefit from more of these community-oriented
spaces and the services and support they offer?
Maya: Yes! Especially if
staff are also involved. Some of us have so few interactions with staff members
because of our limited contact hours.
Tom: Also, I feel like there is a demand at the University for spaces like this one. I mean look at the popularity of the SU Living Room… it is so busy there now. In a way, the space has become a bit too busy, so I still think the Multifaith Chaplaincy is the place for me. We definitely need more community hubs on campus to offset the demand of the SU Living Room and to not run the risk of our social and community spaces quickly becoming overcrowded.
What are your thoughts on the growing importance of the ‘Ways to Well-being’ strategy at the University? What do you think is working and where do you think the University needs to improve?
Emily: This year I know where the well-being advisers are in our department; we receive a lot of e-mails about this. I think the University has done a lot more than people tend to give them credit for. The University is getting better at preventative strategies despite the wait-time for counselling remaining rather disappointing.
Tom: I think overseeing student attendance at lectures would be nice. And it does seem to be working for the courses that already do this. The University should grow from this strength. It’s important to check up on how students are doing, whether they are faring well, especially those who do not feel up for coming into University.
Emily: It would be nice
knowing the university actually cares about us as people beyond our academic
Maya: Also, I think the
fact that we do not meet our personal tutors very often is quite detrimental to
student well-being. I mean my personal tutor meets with me like once a term
officially. Me and so many of my friends feel like we do not know what we are
doing most of the time. Then we get grades and feedback returned and feel
confused as to how we ended up with the grade: good or bad.
In terms of negative feedback, how do you feel
reading back on comments from markers?
Emily: Most of us enter University with optimism and high expectation, we often feel the pressure to make the most out of the experience and excel in the best way we can: whether that is socially, in our extracurricular activities, or in our academic grade. Sometimes, given the random collection of factors and unexpected events, we do not succeed in our personal aspirations at University – this can unsettle us emotionally.
Tom: I guess most of us
don’t feel well-equipped to cope with failure. University needs to prepare
students for failure and educate us on mechanisms for coping and reflecting on
that failure. A disappointing mark is never just an academic failure, but it can
feel like a personal failure as well.
Where do you draw energy and support when you
are feeling vulnerable or a little lost at University?
Maya: I think course mates have become so
important for me. Actually, without them I would feel so lost. We have created
group chats and can help each other out with notes and support each other in
both the administrative and academic sense.
Emily: Yeah, I am lucky because biology is quite a
Tom: Oh really? What? Does everyone really get
on with everyone? My course feels so cliquey.
I point out how the opportunities to forge connections across our academic cohort and to develop a sense of belonging should not be left to mere chance and luck. Instead, the ‘importance of course mates’ should be part of the University Well-being Strategy and we ought to think about how much our teaching and learning spaces are conducive to forging personable connections.
Do you recall memories of a time where you had positive engagement with academic staff and how you benefited from it?
Tom: I actually remember
a time where the absolute inverse happened. I remember a time where I was
snubbed by a member of staff. I was sort of following him after a lecture and I
went over and said “I am really interested in (X) you presented and (Y) in the slide,
could you tell me more about how (Z) might fit into what you are talking about?”
He replied by saying
I should go and research this myself and find it all out for myself. But, you
see, I was trying to do that, but I was confused. Despite expressing interest
and showing engagement I seemed to hit a wall. I felt like this particular
staff member really did not care about me. I think the overemphasis on ‘independent
learning’ makes me feel frequently deflated.
Emily: I agree. I find the whole ‘learn by yourself’ style of teaching quite isolating. If I am trying to engage with staff after a lecture or in consultation hours, then I think we are within our right to ask for a bit more personable support and guidance from staff rather than relying on their signposts to research papers. For me the learning is in the process, and staff should be contributing to that learning process. Sometimes I feel like the only recognizable outcome of our academic pursuits is the grade, but what about the learning process required to construct the essay argument itself? I guess a 2000-word essay can’t really encompass all the intellectual growth spurts we feel throughout the term. Nor can all of our learning be neatly certified in a 60 or 69. Yet we still feel like a failure if we do not receive the numerical grade we hoped for.
Tom: Yeah, failing has
so many negative connotations to it. But sometimes our failures can create
moments of learning. It could be cool for us to reorder the popular narratives
around failure and success. At the end of the day we are all imperfect and we
could use this attribute to transform how we respond to challenging experiences
of disappointment and inadequacy.
Emily: Instead of saying, ‘What grade did you get?’ me and my friends ask, ‘Are you happy with the grade you got?’. We then start to talk about our feelings around expectation and disappointment rather than ending our conversations with a numerical grade.