Lately I have been doing a lot of personal and professional inquiry into mindfulness in higher education. This is not just a hobby. My return to higher education grew up entwined with my journey into yoga. They are somehow inseparable. A great deal of emotional work is required in teaching, especially in an era of scarcity, in which we prepare young people for the fairly formidable challenges left behind by preceding generations, including our own. So the possibility is great for being depleted, or worse, becoming cynical. The world’s headlines alone threaten to overwhelm, not to mention the very concrete facts of those in our care. While depletion may exhaust us and drain our efficacy, to me cynicism is so much more pernicious because it actively corrodes the souls of others. I find the following observations helpful.
I know from experience that when I am not taking care of my own mental health, when I don’t have a place to process the things I hear every day, I start to think differently myself. I start to believe that everything in the world is as twisted as the things that I hear on a day to day basis. There are different names for this such as vicarious traumatization or compassion fatigue.
It can be difficult to recognize when these things are happening, because it isn’t some large, life-changing, traumatic event. It is the day to day build-up of all of the things I hear. It is like a light, almost foggy rain, it barely gets you wet, but if you stay out in it long enough you still get soaked. So what is there to do? How do we avoid this as a profession and as people? The answer is simple, it is called self-care.
We need practices to maintain ourselves because in work with people, such as teaching, it is ourselves we offer. If we are focused enough on self–care in support of such service, perhaps we can offer these practices to others. Perhaps these practices, once spread, can begin to help transform the very circumstances that overwhelm us, tempting us to depletion or cynicism. I am, indeed, once again, making the argument that personal and social change are inextricably linked.
I have been meaning to write some much longer pieces developing these ideas, and perhaps thinking about self–care in this light is a way back in.