New ways of being together

Chloe Asker Photo

A co-produced mindfulness 8-week course and ‘a little book of wisdom’

An Impact Project by Chloe Asker

It was wonderful, as usual. I always feel so, so much better when I finish these sessions, it’s lovely

(Flora1, participant during a workshop, 15/11/2018)

What the project entailed

The SWDTP’s Impact Fund provided me with the resource to develop a grassroots impact project that brought direct benefits to those involved. The project was an 8-week co-produced and participatory mindfulness course developed with a group of participants, out of which we collated a book/zine2 entitled ‘a little book of wisdom’. I combined money awarded from the Impact Fund along with my RTSG, this suited the intention for it to be a research-led form of impact inspired by Pain et al.’s (2016) work on ‘Mapping Alternative Impact’. By offering reflections on the project, I hope to demonstrate the importance of this impact work in developing ‘new ways of being together’ (Conradson, 2011, p. 454) orientated around care, emotional reciprocity and community.

Undertaking the project

During May and June 2018 I undertook some autoethnographic research on an 8-week mindfulness course, where I met a group of people who, once the course had concluded, were eager to continue their exploration into mindfulness. Our group was unique because many mindfulness courses do not facilitate sustainable group dynamics post the 8-week course (Shannon, 2010). Often this can lead to individuals not maintaining regular practice as it is no longer supported by others or by a community. The project was an opportunity for us then to maintain our relationship in order to support each other with our practice, and our lives more generally.

The sessions ran once-a-week for 8 weeks, beginning in October, for 2 hours on a Thursday evening at St. David’s Community Centre in Exeter. We designed the course using a participatory framework, meaning that the workshops were to be designed and run together. We felt it was useful to have the sessions combine themes that were important to us – to create a bespoke course that spoke directly to our needs. Although, logistically, I took charge on the booking of the rooms at the Community Centre and liaising with the mindfulness teacher.

Initial Challenges

In the beginning session we found the participatory framework challenging, participants were not sure about what they wanted from the sessions and felt like they needed to be given a structure. There was a shared feeling that they were still fairly new to the subject and practice, and therefore did not have the competency to make these decisions. However, they did identify themes that they found interesting – especially delving deeper into Buddhist understandings of mindfulness and meditation. Something which secular 8-week courses do not tend to touch on.

The first four sessions were fairly tricky, the group was going through a process of transformation – each assuming new roles, including myself. And this became apparent particularly when I led a couple of the sessions, something that felt somewhat uncomfortable! In addition to this, a member of the group was no longer able to attend the sessions due to difficult travel arrangements. This event caused a lot of worry for everyone involved; we were concerned for their wellbeing but also for the future sustainability of the group.

The Zine

However, by the fourth session, people began to find their voice. From this point we planned the remaining sessions around the themes of acceptance, compassion, suffering and gratitude. This was around the time that we began the zine.

One of the members of the group had been coming across ‘little bits of wisdom’, as she put it: quotes, poems and messages from books, YouTube videos and podcasts. We decided to collectively collate these resources together – providing a reminder of the work we had done together. This process was mindful in its fruition, as the etymology of mindful is to remember, to take care. And through this process of documentation we were reminding ourselves of our practice and the importance of care, both for ourselves and the people around us.

The zine was organised together: we laid out the materials on the floor, arranged them thematically and ordered them to be collated into the book. Making the zine was emotional and visceral, provoking reflection and meditation on relationships both past and present. One poem in particular made a participant weep, symbolising the relationship between herself and her daughter:

We agreed that I would go away and type them up. I formatted the booklet on a design website called Canva, and sent it off to be printed. We met again as a group in the New Year where I handed out the book. Upon receiving the printed copy there were gasps of delight and surprise – the group was overwhelmed by the work, requesting more copies be printed, they wanted to hand them to friends, colleagues, relatives, loved ones.

Reflections on the project

I learned valuable lessons about the challenges and messiness of participatory ways of working, but also found how fulfilling and surprising it can be. I discovered how much it meant to my participants that they had this space to come to, and experienced first-hand the importance of benefice in research. The project enabled us to strengthen the group bond and dynamic through cultivating our inter-personal relationships as well as our relationship to mindfulness practice. We were thus challenging the ‘cookie-cutter’, stand-alone mindfulness 8-week programmes, which have little sense of community or sustainability. Those that are often dubbed as ‘McMindfulness’ (Hyland, 2017; Neale, 2011; Purser and Loy, 2013), complicit in the commoditised therapeutics of late capitalism.

Our time together demonstrated how research and impact are not separate from people’s lives but intimately entangled within them, and thus become extremely meaningful to them. This was evident throughout, but particularly at the end of the workshops when one participant handed out gifts to the group: a mindfulness mug. It was a memento for our time together, she said: “I want you to have a cup of whatever you have, and just remember our mind[fulness], [and] all our sort of things we’ve talked about and have been so helpful, and just have your cup of tea. As I say I’ve got one too!”

The kindness of this gift caused waves of gratitude to wash over me. Our time together had taught me a lot about the porosity of emotional life when we’re imbricated with others. Particularly when stories participants told caused me to be overcome with emotion, and when conversations with them sparked forgotten memories, thoughts and dreams. It is clear that emotions matter in research and impact.

This work highlighted the importance of an ethics of care, and practices of caring-with (Askins and Blazek, 2017) – both outside the University and during fieldwork, but also within our institutions – that facilitate ‘new ways of being together’ (Conradson, 2011, p. 454). Overall, the Impact Fund was a fantastic way to experiment with and to explore further social/community mindfulness as a new way of being together.  

Acknowledgements

Thank you to the wonderful participants who took part in this research and impact. Also a big thank you to the SWDTP student representatives who supported the funding application.

Notes

1 Participants have been given pseudonyms to maintain their anonymity.

2 The idea of producing a zine/book was inspired by Jen Bagelman’s (Bagelman et al., 2017; Bagelman and Bagelman, 2016) activist cookbook zines.

References

Askins, K., Blazek, M., 2017. Feeling our way: academia, emotions and a politics of care. Social & Cultural Geography 18, 1086–1105.

Conradson, D., 2011. Care and Caring, in: Del Casino, V.J. (Ed.), A Companion to Social Geography, Wiley-Blackwell Companions to Geography. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, pp. 454–471.

Hyland, T., 2017. McDonaldizing Spirituality: Mindfulness, Education, and Consumerism. Journal of Transformative Education 15, 334–356.

Neale, M., 2011. McMindfulness and Frozen Yoga: Rediscovering the Essential Teachings of Ethics and Wisdom [WWW Document]. URL http://www.milesneale.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/McMindfulness.pdf (accessed 9.11.17).

Pain, R., Askins, K., Banks, S., Cook, T., Crawford, G., Crookes, L., Darby, S., Heslop, J., Holden, A., Houston, M., Jeffes, J., 2016. Mapping Alternative Impact: Alternative approaches to impact from co-produced research (Project Report). Durham University, Durham.

Purser, R., Loy, D., 2013. Beyond McMindfulness [WWW Document]. Huffington Post. URL https://www.huffingtonpost.com/ron-purser/beyond-mcmindfulness_b_3519289.html  (accessed 11.9.17).

Shannon, H.W., 2010. Meditation as Medicine: A Critique. CrossCurrents 60, 168–184.